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Long Riders: 2-Disc Special Edition, The
Hollywood has been telling and re-telling the story of Jesse James since the silent era, with each generation seemingly getting their own iteration of the legendary outlaw. Director Walter Hill's 1980 western The Long Riders tries to locate the human beings lurking within the oft-told legend, but Hill inevitably punctuates the proceedings with memorably stylized action setpieces that puncture the reality with almost abstract brutality.
Besides Hill's gut-punch violence, The Long Riders is often most remembered for the casting of four sets of real-life brothers. This was the foundational concept of James and Stacy Keach, who executive produce, co-write, and co-star in the film as Jesse and Frank James, respectively. To fill out the James-Younger gang, they got David, Keith, and Robert Carradine to play Cole, Jim, and Bob Younger respectively, plus Randy and Dennis Quaid to play gang associates Clell and Ed Miller. The Bridges boys (Jeff and Beau) were originally courted to play Charlie and Robert Ford (the latter of whom, as the title of a more recent western film makes clear, assassinated Jesse James), but Spinal Tap's Christopher Guest and his brother Nicholas eventually took the parts. This brothers-playing-brothers thing would come off as more of a gimmick, if the cast wasn't so across-the-board gifted and so damn fun to watch.
The episodic film gives us a taste of the robbers' home life, and their (mostly) ordinary attempts at romance. Keith Carradine's character loses his would-be wife (Amy Stryker) to Dennis Quaid's disgraced former gang member, and tries to woo her back. James Keach's Jesse is shown in the midst of a decade-long courtship to his cousin Zee (Savannah Smith). Meanwhile, David Carradine's Cole Younger carries on a tempestuous long-time fling with Pamela Reed's ornery lady of the night, Belle Starr. Belle wouldn't mind Cole putting a ring on it and making her respectable, but Cole is an unrepentant sonofabitch who prefers her just the way she is. This leads to one of the film's most unusual setpieces, where Carradine and James Remar duel for Belle's honor by biting either end of a scarf and slashing at each with great big hunting knives.
James Whitmore, Jr., is the head Pinkerton man sent to bring the James-Younger gang down, but he and his men are ineffective. They cause collateral damage to innocent bystanders and the gang's family members, which only helps to cement the gang's legend as ex-Rebel Robin Hoods who are sticking it to the powers that be.
Everything comes to a head during the famously failed Northfield Minnesota Raid, in which the gang were attacked full force by the Pinkertons. Hill stages the showdown as a multi-tempo ballet of bullets and bloodshed. The use of slow motion, juxtaposed with kinetic real-time footage, calls back to Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch and anticipates John Woo's '90s films, like Hard Boiled. Hill rarely gets mentioned in the same breath with these other beloved action filmmakers, but the craft on display in this sequence alone deserves the kind of film-school/fanboy cred bestowed upon those others.
The film was reportedly cut down significantly from a more character-driven director's cut. United Artists was struggling with Michael Cimino over the uncommercial sprawl of Heaven's Gate, and The Long Riders seems to have been pulled into the fray as well. Maybe the film would have been even better with a little more emotional heft, but I think a bit of terseness lends itself well to Hill's gruff, macho brand of storytelling. The brothers have instant backstory, an implied shorthand, that helps us viewers fill in what the UA editors might have sheared away.
It's a bit of a mixed blessing. This AVC-encoded 1080p 1.85:1 transfer is sourced from a new 4K remaster, but Kino has cut corners by encoding at a middling variable bitrate that undermines most attempts at renewed visual impressiveness. The color palette skews toward browns reminiscent of old photographs, but skin tones look realistic and the grass is reliably green. There are moments of sharpness and clarity, but overall the film is duller and softer than one would hope for such a redux. There's little in the way of dirt or film damage. I didn't see MGM's earlier Blu-ray release, but I expect there's a relative uptick in overall quality. Even so, it's a disappointment.
The old Blu-ray offered only the original DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono mix (also included here), but this new release includes a DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround option that offers more oomph during the action scenes and gives Ry Cooder's excellent score a little more room to spread out. Typically, though, it's a not wildly more immersive mix than the mono. In most dialogue scenes, some effects get thrown to the other channels for ambience and that's about it. No complaints about clarity or damage, though. English subtitles are also available.
- A trio of film aficionados and commentary veterans discuss the film in an informal chat that is steeped in appreciation and fandom. An engaging and amusing listen, with a fair amount of info and analysis. The main drawback to these ears is it sounds like they are holding their mics in their hands, which leads to excessive rustling and rumbling as they shift around throughout the flick.
The story of the James-Younger gang has been told a few dozen ways on film, and The Long Riders is one of the best and most entertaining. The ensemble cast, anchored by four sets of real-life brothers, consistently hit the right notes of midwestern earthiness and old-timey machismo. Hill's use of slow motion violence can't help but bring to mind his former boss, Sam Peckinpah, but Hill's imagination transcends these comparisons. The flick has a handful of all-time great, visceral action sequences. Kino loads up their Blu-ray with more than enough bonus features and a new 5.1 surround audio upgrade, but they under-deliver in the video quality department. As such, this release just misses being definitive. Even so, it comes Highly Recommended.
Justin Remer is a frequent wearer of beards. His new album of experimental ambient music, Joyce, is available on Bandcamp, Spotify, Apple, and wherever else fine music is enjoyed. He directed a folk-rock documentary called Making Lovers & Dollars, which is now streaming. He also can found be found online reading short stories and rambling about pop music.