Y’know, it’s surprising that Walter Hill didn’t make more straight up westerns during the earlier part of a career literally busting at the seams with tough guys and lawless lands; after all this was the man who gave us the stylized genius of The Warriors, who had the biker villians of Another 48 Hours pontificate about how their kind are the only true outlaws left and who remade A Fistful Of Dollars with Bruce Willis in a 20’s setting with Last Man Standing (although as it’s technically also a remake of Yojimbo maybe I’m reaching).
However, in 1980 he released The Long Riders, a violent tale that tackles the oft-told myth of legendary outlaw Jesse James and his loyal companions the James-Younger gang as they were hailed as heroes while they robbed banks and trains. But the movie’s most noticable gimmick was to cast actual brothers in the roles that roped in the Caradines, the Keachs, the Quaids and the Guests to play the various bloodlines of these pistol packing siblings.
The James-Younger gang is known throughout the west for their daring raids up and down the midwestern states of America in the years following the Civil War and are generally treated as folk heroes in the south despite being generally famous for pointing guns at those damn Yankees, but when their member Ed Miller gets too jittery and blows a hole in a clerk, he’s ousted by the rest of the gang, including his brother Clell.
The remainder of the gang; Jesse, his brother Frank James and the Younger brothers, Cole, Jim and Bob, realise that the law will now be on them thicker than flies on shit and sure enough a detective from the Pinkerton Agency is dispatched to bring these men to justice.
However, justice doesn’t exactly do it’s job correctly and while trying to track down the James brothers, lawmen fatally shoot an innocent cousin and in a completely separate incident, accidently blow up their mother’s cabin, killing Jesse and Frank’s younger, mentally disabled fifteen year old brother leading to brutal retribution.
As the Pinkerton men slow their roll in the face of multiple deaths from multiple bullets, the majority of the James-Younger gang get the breathing space they need to pursue the lady folk they’ve all had individual their eyes on while Cole Younger continues his flirty relationship with Belle Starr, a bullshit-free prostitute who realises that this outlaw will never make an honest woman of her.
Sooner or later, however, the gang’s luck is bound going to run out, especially considering that the man from Pinkerton has enlisted the Ford brothers to try and get an audience with Jesse for nefarious purposes…
I have to admit, I kind of was expecting more from this gun blazing tale of outlaws and six shooters, considering that the legend of Jesse James seemed like an open goal to someone such as Walter Hill, who with movies such as Southern Comfort and 48 Hours has shown his love for macho bond between men in life or death situations. However, whenever the film shifts it’s focus to the various gang member’s time away from sticking up engine drivers and shooting the locks off safes you feel like the story is trending water as Jesse and co. select their wives and attempt to settle down despite their day jobs being handled at the end of a gun. It’s like Hill isn’t any more under illusion that the quiet life simply isn’t for men like this as much as it occurs to the men themselves and his attempt to make it feel temporary backfires into simply being uninteresting.
80’s TV movie levels of drama aside, the film does a complete 180°, digs it’s spurs in and rides hard for the fucking border when it comes to the more action oriented parts of the script and it’s plain that Hill is reading the Sam Peckinpah playbook step by step which hardly suprising considering Hill wrote The Getaway for the notoriously volatile director. Thus the gun fights, while admittedly not in the same League as The Wild Bunch, are still brutal, bloody and fucking brilliant. A shootout at a barn involves a literal blizzard of bullets whizzing in every direction is dizzying in it’s excitement and the scene where the gang try to escape a whole freaking town full of men who are pointing guns at them is stunning with everyone absorbing shells like tylenol with satisfyingly fleshy gouts of blood spraying everywhere as the wounded simply grit their teeth and keep riding despite sporting fresh new holes on their person. Unleashed on the violence with a vigour he lacks during the drama, Hill flings out some superbly freakish images like shot men literally being hurled through the air like rag dolls as they fly off their mounts or the unforgettable sight (or should I say upsetting sightif you’re a equus lover) of the gang desperately ride their horses through numerous plate glass windows in super slow motion in order to escape the buzzing ammunition that zings after them.
The gimmick of casting brothers as brothers is a cool one, but apart from the novelty of seeing three Caradines in one place or both Quaid brothers standing side by side like you’re some kind of person playing a hollywood family version of Pokemon Go!, it actually turns out to be somewhat of a mixed bag. Stacey Keach is good, but then Stacey Keach is always good and it’s a little odd seeing the little guy from Revenge Of The Nerds shot full of holes while trying to leap onto the back of a horse, but Christopher and Nicholas Guest as the duplicitous Ford brothers feel more like the McPoyles from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. However, it’s David Caradine who gets to do all the cool shit; drinking heavily, swapping banter with Pamela Reed’s sassy whore and, best of all, indulging in a random knife fight with James Remar cast as a Native American while the two are tethered together by a piece of black cloth they keep gripped in their teeth! In comparison James Keach’s humorless Jesse James sort of blends into the background until he has an order to bark or a squint to give and his tragic end (or at least what the film deems tragic) is sort of lost as the movie aims to be some kind of statement about the romanticism about the outlaws of the old west but it’s nothing that hasn’t been done better before or since with a clearer hand.
Thrillingly fun and genuinely exciting whenever it breaks into a gallop, The Long Riders unfortunately fails to be essential gunslinging thanks to it’s rather tepid drama, but if you’re in the mood for some tethered knife fighting or some good old manly bonding while bullets blow fist-sized holes in people, the James-Younger gang are your boys…