Like some kind of Hollywood outlaw, Walter Hill has tended to lay low, keeping his head down to stay alive in a cutthroat industry. One suspects the director of pictures like The Warriors and Wild Bill is content not to be a household name, but rather to keep making genre pictures his archetypally masculine way: laconic, depicting the bonds that develop among outsiders and the magnetism of sex and violence.
A great lover of Westerns (and particularly those of Ford and Peckinpah), Hill fit The Long Riders like a glove. The legends surrounding Jesse James have been the stuff of several notable Westerns (including Andrew Dominik's 2007 picture The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), but Hill's take carries his own distinctive style and the stunt-casting coup of casting brothers to play brothers: James and Stacy Keach as Jesse and Frank James; David, Keith and Robert Carradine as Cole, Jim and Bob Younger; Randy and Dennis Quaid as Clell and Ed Miller; and Christopher and Nicholas Guest as Charlie and Bob Ford. (The Keach brothers also get script credit—with Bill Bryden and Steven Phillip Smith—and executive produce.)
In telling the tale of the James-Younger Gang—based in Missouri in the years directly following the Civil War—Hill shows his typical understatement. As Clell Miller puts it, the gang is "just in the habit. So I guess we'll just keep on goin' until they lock us up or hang us." Hill doesn't, and needn't, look any deeper for motivation than that, though he does consider the attitudes and conflicts and behavioral drives that form the personalities of these men, whether it be Clell demanding a musician play stop playing "Battle Cry of Freedom" and start playing "I'm a Good Old Rebel," or the romantic difficulties and jealousies seemingly intrinsic to the outlaw life. One gang member loses his girl to a former gang member, while Cole figures he's best off with "a whore"—his name for Pamela Reed's Belle Starr—only to discover he'll have to prove his worth in a knife fight with Cherokee half-breed Sam Starr (James Remar).
Scenes like the latter one demonstrate the film's inclination to print the legend rather than the historical record, but Hill's lean, mean approach never had a more appealing texture than it does here, abetted by music composed and arranged by Ry Cooder. There's a toughness to the storytelling, especially in the horrible rhythms of crime and misdirected punishment, as the authorities repeatedly bungle their response to the criminals and claim collateral damage. Of course, Hill choreographs some mighty fine action, distinguished by impressive stunt work (the biggest show piece is the climactic Northfield Raid). David Carradine makes the biggest impression as the hell-bent-for-leather Cole, but it's an effective ensemble, and Hill finds pockets of eerily quiet existentialism between the outbursts of gunfire, the strange inevitability of the outlaw life.
In its Blu-ray debut from MGM, The Long Riders looks surprisingly good, making a substantial improvement to its DVD counterpart. The picture quality is excellent, with a natural grain and accurate palette; the source material is intentionally a bit soft, and the hi-def image follows suit. The lack of digital tampering is a plus, and though the film could use a bit of clean-up in terms of dust and dirt, one hardly notices in the context of Hill's Western. There's not a lot to say about the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono mix other than that it's likewise wholly authentic to the source and certainly clear enough to get the job done.
MGM's Blu-ray includes only one extra, the film's "Theatrical Trailer" (2:25, HD).
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