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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Rio Bravo (HD DVD) (HD DVD)
Rio Bravo (HD DVD) (HD DVD)
Warner Bros. // Unrated // June 5, 2007 // Region 0
List Price: $28.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted June 15, 2007 | E-mail the Author
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Highly Recommended
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Howard Hawks was disgusted by High Noon. The 1952 cinematic statement against the rise of McCarthyism followed a marshal who tried desperately to find someone to lend him a hand against a vengeful murderer that was about to roll into town. The people he'd once sworn to protect abandon him, and only the two women he's loved -- one of whom is his recently-wed, pacifist Quaker bride -- stand by him. Hawks rolled his eyes. A veteran of World War I as well as the director of too many war flicks and Westerns to count, Hawks thought that men in movies should be men, self-reliant warriors with their chests puffed. His response...? Rio Bravo.

John Wayne, who himself would later speak out against High Noon as "un-American", stars as Texan sheriff Jack T. Chance. He's arrested Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) for murdering a man in cold blood, prompting Burdette's wealthy brother Nathan (John Russell) to put the sleepy little town of Rio Bravo in lockdown. Chance knows it's just a matter of time until Burdette's hired guns make a move to break Joe out of jail. His longtime friend Pat Wheeler (Ward Bond) had recently pulled his caravan into town and offers Chance his men as deputies, but the sheriff politely declines: amateurs who can't slink past thoughts of their wives and children will just give Burdette's seasoned killers more targets to gun down. No, Chance decides to make do with the army he has: Dude (Dean Martin), a once-skilled gunslinger who'd spent the past two years in a drunken stupor and has lost all confidence in himself, and Stumpy (Walter Brennan), the crippled, trigger-happy, nagging, grizzled old prospector-type who's keeping an eye on Joe in jail. Chance warns anyone who offers to help him that Burdette has ears everywhere, and when one of his friends is savagely shot down, a young gun named Colorado (Ricky Nelson) joins up with Chance's posse. A leggy card shark who can't quite shake the looming shadow of her past (Angie Dickinson) takes to Chance too, trying her damndest to keep the sheriff out of the line of fire. It's only a few more days until the marshall rolls into town to take care of the jailed Burdette, but every moment that passes makes it that much more likely that Burdette's men are going to strike.

Howard Hawks loved Rio Bravo so much that he'd go on to remake it twice, again bringing screenwriter Leigh Brackett and star John Wayne in tow. It's not hard to see why Hawks felt so strongly about the film, and a lot of that's owed to the cast and the sharp dialogue. Rio Bravo is so smitten with its characters that it has a deliberately relaxed pace, reluctant to rush from one plot point to the next to let the movie spend more time with its actors. John Wayne plays the unwaveringly brave hero type, of course, but Jack T. Chance is more playful than the stoic characters he usually took on. Then again, if I had a twentysomething Angie Dickinson throwing herself at me, I'd probably be all smiles too. The romance her character aggressively pursues with Chance isn't entirely convincing, but the two are an incredible amount of fun to watch on-screen, and a brassy brunette like Feathers is quite a bit more engaging than the more flatly written women in most of the Westerns I've seen. Ricky Nelson is okay as Colorado; he's not a seasoned actor, and his is one of the more thinly-written parts in the movie, but I'll take a gunslinger who knows he's good and doesn't feel the need to prove it over the usual cocky young braggarts any day.

John Wayne may be the star of Rio Bravo, but the movie's really about Dean Martin's character arc. ("Dean Martin's character arc" reads better than "the redemption of Dude", even if that's exactly what's going on.) After getting his heart broken, the once-mighty gunslinger became a boozehound disinterested in anything but his next drink, and he's introduced as a shattered man trying to fish a silver dollar out of a spittoon. Throughout most of Rio Bravo, Dude is only a couple of days sober, and his hands tremble so severely that he's not of much use as a gunfighter. He's a broken man who wants to piece himself together but lacks the self-respect to do it, and Martin -- only a few years removed from playing straight man to Jerry Lewis -- is almost unrecognizable as he loses himself in the role. Also remarkable is the sheriff's quiet determination, helping Dude pull himself up by his bootstraps without any overwrought monologues or shouted demands. There's a genuine bond between them, one that's closer to father and son than gunslingin' buddies in a Western flick.

Rio Bravo isn't a sprawling epic in the same vein as, say, The Searchers, which spanned years and untold thousands of miles of travel; it's set entirely in one small town over the course of a few days. Devoting this much runtime to this little story may try the patience of some, but at least in my eyes, that relaxed pace is precisely what makes the movie what it is. Rio Bravo is defined by its small character moments: Chance tenderly setting aside Feathers' rifle after she falls asleep trying to keep watch, the way Chance is so at ease with Colorado that he pulls a pouch of tobacco out of the kid's pocket before he's finished asking for it, and Stumpy's nervous rambling after nearly blasting Dude with a shotgun, mistaking him for one of Burdette's men. There's a tremendous amount of chemistry between the movie's leads, and if Hawks feels like letting them crack a joke or break into song just for the hell of it, he indulges.

Howard Hawks is quoted in the disc's extras that all it takes to make a good movie is a few memorable scenes, and Rio Bravo has all the shootouts and bare-knuckled fist fights you'd expect from a Western. After a close friend is gunned down for daring to lend him a hand, Chance tracks the murderer down to a barn. They square off in the dark, but the mostly unseen killer manages to slink off to Burdette's saloon, and one of the most tense sequences in the movie follows as Dude and Chance look at each of the sneering men in the bar one by one to try to pick out which one has blood on his hands. Rio Bravo is bookended with exceptional sequences too, boasting an explosive climax and a particularly clever opening that deftly establishes the characters and the overall scenario without resorting to a single word of dialogue.

...and to think that this was the first Western that John Wayne filmed after making The Searchers. Rio Bravo is one of the definitive Westerns, and Warner's giving it the treatment is deserves on HD DVD with a striking high definition presentation and a slew of extras.

Video: In keeping with the exceptionally high quality of Warner's other classic releases, Rio Bravo looks spectacular in high definition. The film retains its gritty texture, free of any compression artifacting and the tell-tale signs of excessive filtering. Though not as dazzlingly crisp as The Searchers, the 1.78:1 image is very nicely defined, offering a great deal more detail and deeper gradations in its colors and shadows than DVD has to offer.

The Technicolor hues struck me as almost sepia-toned at first, emphasizing browns and dull yellow and reds, but the palette seemed much more lively as the movie went along. A couple of the actors' piercing blue eyes in particular pop off the screen, as do some of Angie Dickinson's more vivid outfits. As drab and lifeless as the colors in some of the earliest scenes seemed at first glance, I didn't have any complaints at all when I gave the disc a second spin to listen to the audio commentary. If you watch Rio Bravo and feel an initial tinge of disappointment at the presentation of the colors and the speckled, soft opening titles, give it a few minutes: this is another in a series of thoroughly impressive catalog efforts from Warner.

Audio: Rio Bravo's monaural audio is reasonably robust. None of the elements in the mix sound anemic or excessively dated, and the soundtrack isn't marred by any pops or dropouts. Some light background noise was audible at times but wasn't nearly pronounced enough to distract. There aren't crystalline highs or thunderous lows, settling comfortably and competently somewhere in the middle. Nothing remarkable but no noteworthy complaints.

A French dub is also provided alongside subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.

Extras: This release of Rio Bravo features the same set of extras as the recently reissued DVD, and although none of this material is offered in high definition, the newly produced featurettes are at least presented in anamorphic widescreen.

Director John Carpenter, whose Assault on Precinct 13 owes a great deal to Rio Bravo, and film historian Richard Schickel contribute the disc's audio commentary. The two of them were recorded separately and spliced together, but apparently even between them, coming up with enough material to fill nearly two and a half hours is a daunting task. The initially chatty discussion starts to fade away even before Rio Bravo is a full hour in, with the comments appearing briefly and sporadically after that. Still, Schickel and Carpenter's enthusiasm for Rio Bravo shines through, with Carpenter taking particular zeal in discussing Hawks' approach to storytelling and his restrained visual technique. Schickel approaches the movie as a well-read film critic, relating Rio Bravo to Hawks' other films, including the director's tendency to nick elements from his earlier movies and relating Angie Dickinson to other Hawksian women. Despite the sizeable gaps in the discussion, virtually every conceivable angle -- the casting, the development of the story, recurring themes, Hawks' subdued visual style, the tone on the set, and numerous production notes -- are tackled in detail.

The newly produced half hour featurette "Commemoration: Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo" plays in part like a highlight reel from the commentary, covering many of the key angles from Schickel and Carpenter's discussion. The two of them appear again in this anamorphic widescreen featurette, joined by directors Walter Hill and Peter Bogdanovich, actress Angie Dickinson, and a slew of film historians. Some of the topics from the audio commentary appear again here -- Rio Bravo serving as a sort of response to High Noon, Hawks' return to directing after a four year hiatus in Europe, and his recycling of some of his favorite material. "Commemoration" delves even more in depth than the commentary at times, particularly when it comes to notes about the cast. Other highlights include the difficulty in getting a Western made when the genre made up a third of the primetime programming on television and Wayne's tattered hat that appeared in every Western he made between Stagecoach and Rio Bravo. This is a fantastic retrospective and by far the best of the extras on this disc.

"Old Tucson: Where the Legends Walked" is an eight and a half minute tour of the Arizona studio where Rio Bravo was filmed. The featurette briefly touches on the early days of the studio and how it's evolved over time, but it focuses primarily on Rio Bravo, noting the several buildings constructed specifically for the film and pointing out some of the locations that are still standing. This brief but reasonably informative featurette is presented in anamorphic widescreen.

Howard Hawks was among the directors featured in the 1973 documentary series The Men Who Made the Movies, and the slightly updated version that was featured on Turner Classic Movies and Warner's DVD release of Bringing Up Baby appears again here. The hour long retrospective is anchored primarily around a vintage interview with the director himself as well as a series of clips from some of Hawks' best known films. Scarface, Twentieth Century, Bringing Up Baby, Only Angels Have Wings, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Red River, Monkey Business, and, of course, Rio Bravo are among the many movies excerpted and discussed. The retrospective spends more time with Hawks' comedies than any of the many other genres he touched on -- Cary Grant is nearly inescapable -- but it's impressively thorough regardless.

The last of the extras is a trailer gallery. All but one of them are from the infancy of Wayne's career, dating back to the early '30s when he couldn't escape his second-billed miracle horse Duke: The Big Stampede, Haunted Gold, Somewhere in Sonoma, and The Man from Monterey. As expected due to the era in which the movies were filmed, all of these trailers are black and white and presented at an aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The trailer for Rio Bravo is also offered here, presented in color and at the same full-frame aspect ratio as the others.

Conclusion: Rio Bravo is frequently pointed to as one of best of John Wayne's Westerns and deservedly so. Warner has assembled an impressive HD DVD release for the enduring film, and it's essential viewing for fans of the genre. Highly Recommended.
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