The Film: 4/5
In the years following the Civil War, the James-Younger Gang robbed banks, trains, and stagecoaches throughout the American Mid-West. Led by the James brothers - Jesse (James Keach) and Frank (Stacy Keach) - and including the brothers Younger - Cole (David Carradine), Jim (Keith Carradine), and Bob (Robert Carradine) - and Miller - Clell (Randy Quaid) and Ed (Dennis Quaid) - the gang's criminal activity eventually draws the attention of the Pinkerton agency, represented by Rixley (James Whitmore Jr.). The law sets out to bring the outlaws to justice but their efforts are thwarted at nearly every turn by rank incompetence that results in the deaths of innocent lives and a lack of cooperation from locals sympathetic to the gang. While various members of the gang make plans to settle down and start families Jesse - the only member with his own family, intends for them to assault a bank in Northfield, Minnesota that promises a major payday. What they find in Northfield is a trap set by the Pinkertons that reduces the gang to bloody shreds and leaves the survivors scrambling to stay one step ahead of the authorities. Eventually Rixley must employ the services of the brothers Ford - Charlie (Christopher Guest) and Bob (Nicholas Guest) - who the James-Younger Gang once rejected for membership to finish the job the toughest lawmen in the nation could not.
Walter Hill wasn't the first filmmaker to tackle the legend of Jesse James and his criminal exploits in the days when most of the United States had yet to be actually both united and states, and he would not be the last. Directors such as Sam Fuller, Philip Kaufman, and most recently Andrew Dominik have woven their own stylistically and philosophically discrete takes on the infamous outlaw who was either a suave gentleman bandit or a scurvy lowdown thief depending on which legend would be printed that day. The Long Riders, Hill's take on the legend of James and his gang (but not the James Gang, though "Funk #49" and "Walk Away" are awesome rocking tunes), is one of the more straightforward versions of the tale ever told on the big screen; it takes place during the last months of James' life and doesn't bother with any pesky back story, because that territory had already been heavily traversed long before Hill began his directing career. Having started out as a screenwriter penning memorable tough guy dramas like Hickey & Boggs and Sam Peckinpah's The Getaway (the latter based on Jim Thompson's classic crime novel), Hill made his feature directorial debut in 1975 with the Charles Bronson-James Coburn Depression-era boxing feature Hard Times. Following his sparse and cool underrated crime flick The Driver Hill made his breakthrough with The Warriors, a controversial adventure that was set in modern day New York but was actually based on a 1965 novel that had its roots in the seven volume ancient Greek epic Anabasis by the soldier and scribe Xenophon. Most of the features in Hill's extensive filmography that were not pure westerns borrowed many visual and topical motifs common to most American western stories and movies. The Long Riders was the first western he ever directed and he would return to that mythical frontier time and again in the course of his career.
Hill dispenses with the introductions opens The Long Riders right smack dab in the middle of a bank robbery about to go horribly wrong thanks to Ed Miller's itchy trigger finger, following a bucolic opening credits sequence of the gang galloping across glorious green plains to the music of Ry Cooder naturally. From the start it is established that there is no real love, honor, or loyalty among the members of the James-Younger gang; each man looks after their brother(s) above all, and to hell with everyone else. A gang member can be expelled, no questions asked, for any reason Jesse or his brother Frank chooses. This is not the most sympathetic portrayal of the legendary outlaws you would find. The Long Riders skillfully blends the romanticized visuals and lantern-bathed texture of the classic westerns of John Ford and Howard Hawks with the thunderous and unflinching violence and stark realism of Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Hill's cinematographer Ric Waite (who passed away in February 2012) finds the hidden beauty in the ramshackle prairie towns and endless forests as sparkling green as Emerald City, in the rustic saloons and dusty city streets teeming with uncaring citizens. James and Stacy Keach both co-wrote the script (with Bill Bryden and Steven Phillip Smith, with uncredited contributions from Hill) and starred as the James brothers and they do mighty fine jobs on both fronts. James Keach's performance as Jesse is one of the most unusual I've ever seen in a western; he cuts an intimidating figure with his deep yet reedy voice and bulging, unblinking eyes and doesn't seem to have many charismatic qualities about him. Clearly, he saves the emotion for his family and he is just as convincing taking meaningful walks with his wife as he is knocking over a bank. Stacy compliments his brother nicely and most of the time outclasses him as the more level-headed and sensible of the James boys, the only one who takes it upon himself in the end to do the only right thing left to do.
As far as the rest of the actors playing members of the gang go, only David Carradine really impresses as Cole Younger, the somewhat aloof gunslinger whose loyalty to his brothers is never in question but his feelings for prostitute and occasional lover Belle Starr (Pamela Reed) often is very much so. The relationship between Carradine and Reed's characters is the most well-defined between a man and woman The Long Riders has to offer, and the begrudging but deeply passionate chemistry the two actors share makes their fleeing scenes together all the more touching and effective. Robert and Keith Carradine are both good in their limited roles, Randy Quaid does what he can well though he is barely in the movie at times, and Dennis Quaid is pretty good at playing an unrepentant asshole. The Guest brothers are the real odd men out here; Christopher has done some decent dramatic work in his career but he just sticks out like a sore thumb in the rugged landscape of the western film, while Nicholas fares somewhat better as the twitchy Bob Ford, a role played brilliantly by Casey Affleck in Dominik's 2007 masterpiece The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Spoiler warning: Bob is the coward who assassinated Jesse James.
The rest of the cast is filled out by brief appearances from Hill repertory company members Peter Jason, James Remar, Lin Shaye, and Chris Mulkey. Harry Carey Jr., a beloved character actor best known for playing supporting roles in the Ford and Hawks western (often as a counterpart to star John Wayne), shows up in a priceless cameo as a stagecoach passenger who has a memorable run-in with the gang. The sharp editing work by Freeman Davies and David Holden keeps the pace lean and the action taut and tense. Ry Cooder, a brilliant musician even before he signed on with this production, contributes one of the greatest music scores ever composed for a western. He gives the movie a genuine musical voice rich with steel guitars and mandolins that sing for the prosperous and mourn for the dead. Listening to the soundtrack on its own you don't even really need to watch the movie to know the progression of the story, but Hill's film is so damn good that you should watch it anyway.
Previously release on Blu-ray in 2011 by longtime rights holder MGM, which purchased financing studio United Artists in 1981 following the disastrous reception of Heaven's Gate, The Long Riders gets a top-notch HD overhaul for this Region B release by UK distributor Second Sight. The movie is presented in a new 1080p, AVC-encoded widescreen transfer in its original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio. The transfer is quite superb, with the colors enriched and more vibrant than ever and the picture bursting with sharpened texture and details. The cinematography looks very clear with little visible grain except in the right spots. Our sole audio option is an English 2.0 LPCM track that is strong on the music and dialogue mixes without allowing either element to compromise the other. Audio distortion is minimal and at best non-existent. No subtitles are included.
It would be too much to ask for Walter Hill to record an audio commentary since he usually shies away from those things, but fortunately the good people at Second Sight have collaborated with Fiction Factory to produce several fine new supplements for this release.
The first (and best) of the extras is "Outlaw Brothers: The Making of The Long Riders", a 61-minute documentary featuring interviews with Hill and stars James Keach and Robert Carradine. The three participants provide an excellent overview of the film's history, from its inception spearheaded by the Keach brothers to the raucous premiere at the Cannes Film Festival where the stars galloped down the red carpet on horseback. We learn that Jeff Bridges and his older brother Beau were originally approached to play Bob and Charlie Ford and the studio fought Hill on his choice of Ry Cooder to compose the score - this was their first of many memorable cinematic collaborations and I highly recommend you check out the 2-CD set Music By Ry Cooder for a larger sampling of his film scoring work for Hill - among other interesting facts. It would have been great to hear from other living members of the Long Riders cast and crew but the trio of interviewees provide beyond adequate counterbalance for the lack of perspective with their fascinating stories. Just wait until you get to the part about how a visit to the set by legendary filmmaker Sam Fuller helped inspire very convincing performances in a key scene.
Next up is "The Northfield Minnesota Raid: Anatomy of a Scene" (15 minutes), which brings back Hill, Keach, and Carradine to discuss the making of the violent and chaotic third act bank robbery scene. The vital significance of a steam-powered tractor and the presence of real-life reformed bank robber-turned-actor and writer Eddie Bunker, whose book No Beast So Fierce was made into the 1978 Dustin Hoffman movie Straight Time and is best known for playing Mr. Blue in Quentin Tarantino's debut feature Reservoir Dogs, as a James-Younger Gang member are among the highlights of this detailed featurette.
Closing things out is "Slow Motion: Walter Hill on Sam Peckinpah" (6 minutes), which is a pretty self-explanatory feature. Hill talks about his relationship with the brilliant filmmaker going back to the crime drama The Getaway which Hill wrote the screenplay for, and he also goes into detail about his and Peckinpah's use of slow motion in their action scenes and how they were both praised and criticized for employing the technique. You come away from this brief feature with a great insight into how both directors related with one another. Since I have always found Walter Hill to be the natural heir apparent to the late Peckinpah this extra alone makes the Blu-ray worth a purchase.
Walter Hill didn't set out to make an overlong epic, just a simple and evocative entertainment with the power to thrill and provoke passionate debate, and The Long Riders is just that. A tragic, mournful, exciting, and at times caustically amusing western that feels simultaneously like a big step forward and a few affectionate steps back in the genre, The Long Riders looks and sounds better than I have ever seen it presented on home video and Second Sight has complimented the masterful upgraded picture and sound with some top-shelf supplements to enhance your appreciation of this undervalued horse opera. It certainly did the trick for me.