Too bad this little charmer didn't sell! Lionsgate has released The Legend of Butch & Sundance, a failed 2004 TV pilot from NBC that stars David Rogers, Ryan Browning, and Rachelle Lefevre. With director George Roy Hill's iconic, marvelously funny and romantic 1969 version, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid entrenched in the popular culture, and with Paul Newman and Robert Redford so firmly attached in the public's mind to those two roles, it took a lot of guts for screenwriter and executive producer John Fasano and director Sergio Mimica-Gezzan to attempt a similarly-toned TV version of the infamous outlaws. Frankly, you're asking for trouble when you set yourself up against such a formidable cinematic memory.
Maybe that's why The Legend of Butch & Sundance turned out to be such a pleasant surprise. Unpretentious, quick-footed, with a light-of-touch script and some charismatic young performers, The Legend of Butch & Sundance held up quite nicely against its more famous inspiration, and I suspect it would made an interesting series, had it followed the lead of this enjoyable pilot programmer. I have no idea of the veracity of the "facts" presented in this romantic comedy western (a disclaimer at the end of the film warns of fictionalization), nor do I particularly care, so Western fans looking for a definitive, gritty exploration of the real Butch and Sundance should head for the hills on this one.
Instead, Fasano and Mimica-Gezzan have concocted an engaging little three-way romance between the famous bank robbers and school teacher Etta Place, and placed it down within the framework of a casual, easy-to-take western tale of social inequity and personal revenge. Starting with Butch Parker's (David Rogers) transformation into a socially conscious bank robber, The Legend of Butch & Sundance shows the outlaw, under the tutelage of friend Mike Cassidy (Michael Biehn), working against the influence of the railroads, an entity that both men feel is ending their nomadic, freewheeling way of life on the fast-disappearing open range. Butch soon finds a kindred spirit in restless, hot-shot pistolero Harry Longabaugh (Ryan Browning), who joins up with Cassidy's "Wild Bunch" gang to rob the banks, owned by the railroads.
Complicating matters for both men is the presence of schoolteacher Etta Place (Rachelle Lefevre), Longabaugh's long-time girlfriend. Etta, vivacious and flirtatious, finds herself immediately drawn to the charming, polite Butch, but not enough to give up her love for the more coarse yet equally attractive Harry. When an undercover Pinkerton agent, Charlie Durango (Blake Gibbons), shoots Mike Cassidy dead, Butch takes his friend's last name in honor, and vows vengeance against Durango. Forming the "Hole in the Wall" gang, Butch and "The Sundance Kid" Harry plot to rob the railroad train again, while both men try and untangle their feelings for the seductive Etta.
I was particularly impressed with the easy smoothness of The Legend of Butch & Sundance's script. Veteran TV scribe Fasano knows his business, and he's quite adept at shorthanding the development of the three lead characters' evolving love for each other. It's a very subtle job of script construction, actually; nothing disappears faster on screen than a screenwriter's deliberate attempt to be "light, funny, and romantic," but Fasano pulls it off with aplomb. The dialogue, while certainly not period in flavor, has a smart, bright flow to it that's quite appealing. Even Fasano's forays into the social issues background of the story is adroit, with Butch's and Sundance's beef with the railroads cleanly and concisely laid out - without a lot of ham-handed philosophizing to muck it up, either.
Matching Fasano's facility with the tricky plotting is director Sergio Mimica-Gezzan's deftness of touch when directing the young leads and plotting out the family-friendly action (there's a lot of well thought-out, well-orchestrated gunplay, but only one death that I counted). There's a rather carefree, loose feel to The Legend of Butch & Sundance that's difficult to pin down. It's definitely not a "romp;" that's too boisterous a description. But it's not "laid back," either; that suggests a torpor that isn't there. Perhaps "easy-going" or "casual" is the best way to describe the tone and atmosphere of The Legend of Butch & Sundance. Director Mimica-Gezzan never takes any of the events too seriously, and always allows a chance for one of the actors to give a subtle, figurative "wink" to the audience to keep the feeling light. That's an extremely difficult line to walk ("heavy" drama and outsized, broad comedy is relatively easy in comparison to litheness of step), and Mimica-Gezzan does it quite skillfully.
Of course, none of that would work without performers who attract the audience; luckily, the three leads here are perfectly cast, with a natural chemistry together that would have worked well within a TV series format. Rogers as Butch, and Browning as Sundance, pull off the neat trick of referencing some of the feelings we associate with Newman's and Redford's fondly remembered characterizations, without in any way imitating or aping those previous performances. Rogers is charming and boyish, a smooth talker who never comes across as cocky or arrogant; he perfectly captures that idea we have of Butch (courtesy of Newman) as more of a talker than a fighter, but Rogers makes the character his own, with a straightforwardness that makes him a natural for future lead roles. Browning, with an easy grin and fast moves, instantly recalls Redford's Sundance, but he as well takes the character to a different place, subtly suggesting Harry's not-to-bright initial appraisal of the growing attraction between Etta and Butch, while giving an equally appealing account of himself as a gunman unable to change his ways, even for the lovely Etta. Browning, too, would seem a natural for bigger things in the future. Lefevre probably has the toughest assignment here. She has to make us understand how she can love both men equally, while making sure we sympathize with her plight, instead of judging her. And quite simply, she's a delight who pulls it off effortlessly (just as the gorgeous Katherine Ross did in the Hill version). Thoroughly modern in her approach to the character, she has just the right amount of spunk (without seeming like a tomboy) to keep up with outlaws, while remaining a beguiling object of attraction. Hopefully, she, too, will be getting bigger roles in the future.
Originally shot for television, the full frame, 1.33:1 transfer for The Legend of Butch & Sundance has grain and some compression issues, but overall, it's pretty typical for a mid-level TV transfer (shot in Canada, the location work and cinematography by Igor Meglic is top-notch).
The Dolby Digital English 2.0 stereo mix is adequate, with all dialogue heard clearly, but it's too bad there wasn't a fuller mix for the action sequences. Spanish subtitles and English close-captions are available.
A couple of Lionsgate trailers are included, along with a "still gallery" which are nothing more than screen caps. Pretty skimpy, although not surprising considering the title.
What a charming little surprise! Deftly written, with smart direction and three charismatic leads from David Rogers, Ryan Browning, and Rachelle Lefevre, make the failed 2004 TV pilot The Legend of Butch & Sundance an engaging comedy romance oater that holds up quite nicely against its more famous cinematic inspiration. Too bad this didn't sell into a series; that's a missed opportunity. I highly recommend The Legend of Butch & Sundance.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.