Sometimes, simplicity works. Like in the quiet, somber, and oh-so-very-simple western "The Pledge," which adorns itself with a few pieces of genre cliché, a few recognizable scenarios, and nothing else - but instead of an empty formula piece, the movie creates from these elements a fine example of storytelling economy. It provides western fans with exactly what they want, then wraps up and heads home. B pictures used to work like this, and now, too, does "The Pledge."
Originally premiering in July on the Hallmark Channel under the more elegant title "A Gunfighter's Pledge," the film was inexplicably rechristened "The Pledge" for DVD release. (Perhaps to confuse it with the excellent 2001 Jack Nicholson drama?) No matter what you call it, it's a surprisingly better film than one would imagine from a made-for-TV cheapie starring Luke Perry and C. Thomas Howell, thanks to a fine story, brisk action, and quality performances from its leads.
The film opens with Sheriff Matt Austin (Perry, whose brooding look and attitude makes him an unexpected natural for the genre) tracking down escaped killer Tate (Kim Coates), a nasty thug with a chip on his shoulder - Austin's the guy who put Tate behind bars. When the sheriff is unable to protect his family from the villain's rampage, he sets out a mission of revenge.
Meanwhile, the greedy land baron Horn (Howell, done up in John Carradine-esque thin moustache and black hat) strong-arms his way around town, forcing landowners off their property as part of a finely tuned swindle. One farmer (Alex Paez) figures his only option is to hire a couple of gunslingers to keep Horn and his men away; unfortunately, he attempts to hire Tate just as Austin rides into town. In the ensuing shoot-out, Tate escapes, but the farmer is gunned down by the sheriff.
The two storylines finally connected, Austin honors the farmer's dying wish and rides off to help the farmer's widowed sister (Jaclyn DeSantis) and her son (Wyatt Smith) on their ranch. There, he'll be needed for more than mending fences and chopping firewood - in his last ditch attempt to nab the ranch, Horn up and hired Tate.
At a tight 79 minutes, "The Pledge" is a quick burst of western familiarity, the kind that used to fill time during a Saturday matinee. It's the sort of programmer that might have starred a pre-fame John Wayne back in the 1930s, the sort of uncomplicated yet enjoyable yarn Louis L'Amour might have cranked out over a day or two.
Of course, it also comes with all the negatives such B movie connotations supply. The dialogue is clunky at times, the story is far too predictable, and the whole thing has a made-for-TV sheen that leaves the picture looking less like the gritty modern westerns we've come to expect and more like an episode of "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman."
Yet at its core, we have a fine piece of straightforward genre work. The writer, Jim Byrnes, is a veteran of the format, having scripted such varied projects as the Kenny Rogers "Gambler" movie and multiple "Gunsmoke" episodes. Here, Byrnes embraces the formula. He's never ashamed of cliché. That boldness allows the familiarity to work for the picture. It's a story told at times in shorthand (Howell's hat says more about the character than any dialogue ever could), giving the film a refreshing old-fashioned vibe that allows the viewer to excuse what doesn't work and enjoy what does. Western buffs will appreciate such a direct approach.
Video & Audio
Aside from a hefty amount of grain in the more darkly lit scenes, "The Pledge" looks surprisingly good in this anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) transfer. Colors are crisp, and there's plenty of definition to the image. While it never escapes the simple look of your average TV movie, at least it looks like one of the sharper ones.
The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack is fairly restrained, keeping most of the action up front. Dialogue is clear, unhampered by solid music and effects. No subtitles are provided.
None, except for a batch of previews that plays as the disc loads.
The simplicity of "The Pledge" is a weakness, sure, but it's also its best asset. Western fans will find enough here to provide for a breezy afternoon's entertainment. Hardcore buffs will find the low asking price a nice excuse to add this to their collection, but the no-frills presentation will limit any real replay value for most. Rent It.