The Long Riders [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - America - MGM / Fox
Review written by and copyright: Anthony Arrigo (17th August 2011).
The Film

Walter Hill is one of those iconic Hollywood auteurs from the 70's who is responsible for writing & directing some of the greatest cult classics and mainstream hits of all-time. I’d rattle off a few titles, but ardent cinephiles should be well-versed in the man’s work. I’ll just say that if he were only responsible for “The Warriors” (1979) alone, that would be enough to make him a man-god in my book. Suffice it to say, the man makes what he wants – how he wants – and the end result is typically something worth seeking out. Anyone who has read an interview or biography of Hill, or had to pleasure to hear him speak (I did once at a screening of “Hard Times” (1975), one of his best films), you’d know that he writes and directs all of his films as though they were a Western. They might not always look it, but that’s just his modernization of the classic Western storyline. After spending much of his time in the 70's making his own interpretations of the model Western, Hill finally set out to make one proper with “The Long Riders” (1980), a fictionalized account of the James-Younger gang.

The film, playing almost like a series of vignettes, follows the gang – the Youngers consist of brothers Cole (David Carradine), Jim (Keith Carradine) and Bob (Robert Carradine), along with James brothers Frank (Stacy Keach) and Jesse (James Keach) and the Millers, Ed (Dennis Quaid) and Clell (Randy Quaid) – as they rob banks across the South. Fueled by revenge for their loss to the North, the gang decides to go on a crime spree as a method of payback. Similar to how they were perceived in real life, the men are painted in a favorable, larger-than-life light, almost making them into folk heroes of the era. Indeed, though it was a misconception, Jesse James was seen as a rebel Robin Hood, even if reports are that the money he robbed was never actually spent on anyone but himself. The film has a loose narrative of the Pinkertons coming South to find the gang and bring them to justice, but they end up having a much harder time bringing them in than they expected. This skeletal structure is the backbone to the film, which is made up of many scenes just showing the men as they might have been in life. How they interacted with each other, what they did to pass the time, women they loved, family they supported. And, of course, it all comes to and end once we’re introduced to the Ford brothers, Bob (Nicolas Guest) and Charlie (Christopher Guest), who were responsible for ending the life of a true American outlaw and legend, Jesse James.

I really loved Hill’s approach to the material here. Rather than pander to audiences with yet another bank robbery film and a typical plot structure, Hill eschews all of that for a looser feel, letting us drop into the lives of these men to learn how they lived. Bank robberies are at the forefront of their activities, of course, but there are many sequences were we see the gang dancing at local bars, trying to ignite a flame with some ladies and proving themselves to be more than the one-dimensional criminals they were made out to be. And it’s made all the better thanks to Hill employing not only acting brothers, but acting brothers who happen to be great actors. Having the three Carradine brothers alone would make this one worth watching (hell, I’d settle for just David!), but the inclusion of so many notable cast members really helps this picture stand out from the pack.

I’ve always been much more familiar with Stacy Keach’s acting, but I was pleased to learn his brother is just as formidable a presence in front of the camera. His portrayal of the outlaw Jesse James was presented a steely, cool-headed man who only wanted to do right by “his” country, and he held a great contempt for those Yankees who tarnished his proud South. The beard he’s rocking might look a bit fugazi, but his performance was among the highlights of the film.

Hill reeled me in with his keen casting and solid script, but what sent this film into absurdly awesome territory for me were the gunfights. An avid admirer of the great Sam Peckinpah’s work – Hill wrote the script for “The Getaway” (1972) – the shootout scenes are a full-on representation of what “Bloody Sam” would have done if he had directed. The editing of fast action intercut with slow-mo shots is classic Peckinpah, and every gun battle is full of these flourishes that made his films so popular and controversial. Not only does Hill liberally borrow editing techniques, but the shootouts are full of blood. Massive squib shots blast holes in the costumes so large and gaping it’ll make you question how anyone could be surviving these shots. I was immediately reminded of “The Wild Bunch” (1969), my favorite American Western. The town siege of the James-Younger gang by the authorities is lengthy, brutal, loud and exquisitely shot and edited. If I had any complaint, it would be that the guns sound a little too canned, but that’s to be expected from a film of this vintage. Truth be told, as much as I’d like something more realistic sounding, I find the archaic effects have some charm to them.

Sound! I can’t forget to mention the wonderful score here, courtesy of the legendary Ry Cooder. The instrumentation sounds plucked right from that era, with plenty of music endemic to the good ol’ South. We’re also treated to many songs that were sung among the Rebels during the Civil War, one of which comes courtesy of Randy Quaid’s character (he sure does hate Yankee classics). It doesn’t rank near the top of the best Western scores of all-time (a category Ennio Morricone has on lockdown), but it’s definitely one of the best I’ve heard in a long while. It’s just another prime example of what makes Hill’s film a true classic of the genre that, frankly, doesn’t seem to get the kind of recognition it deserves.

Video

I’ve heard some state that the film’s 1.85:1 1080p 24/fps AVC MPEG-4 encoded image is only marginally better than the DVD. Now, I don’t own the original DVD, so a comparison isn’t possible, but I feel it’s safe to say this is a marked improvement. If anything, viewers will appreciate (and surely notice) the upgrade in detail provided by high definition. Although, James Keach’s beard won’t love how much more obviously fake it looks in such crystal clarity. There are a handful of scenes that don’t look quite as sharp and clean as others – likely due to natural lighting elements and Hill’s stylistic decisions.

I felt that the image looked splendid in many cases, especially when the men are gathered together in broad daylight. The dirt and grime on their skin and clothes is palatable, and the grotesque bullet wounds stand out clearly among their outfits. I didn’t notice any digital manipulation here – now DNR or edge enhancement – leaving grain fully intact and well-preserved. There are some scratches and lines that appear intermittently throughout, but I never found them to be a distraction and, if anything, they added to the charm of enjoying an old Western in high-def.

Audio

The English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 surround sound track mixed at 48kHz/24-bit isn’t quite the powerhouse I wanted it to be, but the job gets done all the same. As I’d said before, some of the effects sound slightly archaic, but I don’t have much of a problem with that since it fits the period of the film. Dialogue is perfectly centered and balanced, never losing its footing in the mix. Cooder’s score sounds pitch perfect, adding to the film’s authenticity. It’s a simple track, one without many bells & whistles, but the gunshots do manage to pack a decent wallop all things considered.
French, Italian, German and Catalan Dolby Digital 2.0 surround tracks are also included. Subtitles are available in English for the hearing impaired, French, Spanish, German, Italian, Catalan, Danish, Ditch, Norwegian and Swedish. Whew!

Extras

Not a damn thing… save for the film’s theatrical trailer (1080p), running for 2 minutes and 25 seconds.

Packaging

The 50 GB disc comes housed in an amaray keepcase with cover art carried over from the DVD.

Overall

Much better than I’d anticipated it to be, “The Long Riders” isn’t going to be a Western for everyone, but it’s a great piece of cinema from the end of the 70's-era of Hollywood filmmaking. The film is anchored by a rock-solid cast of notable actors, each giving a great performance, and featuring some fantastic, bloody battles. MGM could’ve gone the extra mile to include some great features here, but I’m not surprised we got whatever the DVD had (read: not much). I don’t know if current DVD owners will feel this one is worth the upgrade, but anyone who doesn’t own it should certainly seek it out.

The Film: B+ Video: B- Audio: B- Extras: D Overall: B

 


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