11 December 2001 | uglykidmatt
To the millions who didn't go...it's your loss
It's a real shame. "Texas Rangers", Steve Miner's new take on the founding of the famous band of Old West law enforcers, was held back from release for almost a whole year, subjected to numerous re-edits, dumped into theatres without any fanfare, and greeted with apathy and pathetic grosses. And you know what? It's one of the most entertaining films I've seen all year.
The film stars James Van Der Beek as an upright Eastern inventor's son who, on his first trip to the wild west, sees his parents and brothers killed before his eyes by marauding bandits. Desperate for revenge, he enlists with the Rangers, a more-or-less vigilante band led by Leander McNelly (Dylan McDermott), an ex-Confederate soldier with a vendetta of his own. McNelly's band of young gunslingers battle their way across the Texas border country, sniffing out bandits, doling out frontier justice, romancing the women-folk, etc., etc.
In other words, "Texas Rangers" does nothing you can't see in any B-western on Saturday afternoon TV. It's just that it does most of it a lot better than we've seen for quite some time. After the rather too glossy "American Outlaws", it's nice to get a Western with a gritty, authentic look. The towns look appropriately small and weather-beaten, the costumes nice and trail-worn. The only gloss here is on the guns...and I guess some of those young cowpokes are kind of glittery, too.
Miner's direction is curiously hot and cold here. He excels in quiet moments, dialogue and character, but his action scenes sometimes come up short. He seems particularly to have a bad habit of always putting his camera in the wrong place when his quick action payoffs arrive (bullets hitting home, knives landing on target). Still, the picture moves with lots of energy and excitement, and Miner is definitely to thank for that. Also, he scores in the big action climax, where the Rangers storm the desperadoes' Mexican hideout. Here, the camera always finds the right spot, and the result is a fast, pulse-quickening blowout.
A fine cast gives a lot of luster to the material. James Van Der Beek has never been just another WB pretty boy, and he takes to the Western with grace and conviction. Ashton Kutcher is okay as a hayseed gunman, but at times comes off a little too much like he's still on "That '70s Show". Usher Raymond is nicely understated as a former-slave ranger, and while Rachael Leigh Cook's rancher's daughter is really superfluous to the plot, her gorgeous face is absolutely essential. Fine supporting turns dot the picture, with standouts being Randy Travis and Robert Patrick as McNelly's lieutenants and Vincent Spano as a cocky, villainous gunslinger.
Really, though, this is Dylan McDermott's show. I have never been much of a fan of "The Practice", and was stunned by the force and power of McDermott's work here. He carries himself with solid-as-a-rock strength, and handles his quieter emotional moments with consummate restraint. He also looks superbly the part, eyes glowering beneath his black hat, guns blazing away from the back of his horse. Of course, it also helps that Scott Busby and Martin Copeland's screenplay turns McNelly into a complex and fascinating character. Haunted by the memory of his wife and child, (stolen by bandits while he was off in the wars), dogged by a sickness that is bearing down on his soul, always trusting the gun and the noose over the badge and the lawbook, McNelly is a classic western hero, bigger than life and still movingly human. It's a terrific performance, one of the best I've seen this year, and it makes me wish that they'll keep making westerns just so McDermott can keep acting in them.
Of course, they won't keep making them if people won't get off their duffs and go see the good ones when they come along. And trust me, "Texas Rangers" is one of the good ones, a top-class B-picture with an A-list lead performance. Give it a look, if it's still at your local theatre. I guarantee you won't be sorry you did.