Quite simply, you cannot go wrong with a Western starring Robert Duvall. Some would even go so far as to say you cannot go wrong with any movie starring this outstanding actor, but his film history has occasionally provided exceptions to this rule. Famous more for his heavyweight supporting roles - from the likes of Apocalypse Now and The Godfather to, more recently, We Own the Night - he still held his own in a lead performance opposite Costner for the outstanding (and woefully underrated) Open Range and carried the whole Lonesome Dove TV mini-series across its course. A couple of years ago he returned to the TV medium for the 3-hour 2-parter Broken Trail, proving once again - even in the twilight of his career - that you should not underestimate this powerful actor.
Just over a decade before the turn of the 20th Century, Prentice Ritter is the bearer of bad news, informing his estranged nephew Tom Harte of a death in the family. Carer of the estate, Print offers Tom a deal to take a job with him herding hundreds of horses across America, and reluctantly he agrees. Pretty soon the pair find that their own brewing disputes are the least of their worries, encountering a carriage-full of Chinese girls brought into the country as slaves. Taking them under their wing, they soon find themselves prey to rival gangs and dangerous men intent on retrieving their lost 'property'.
Broken Trail is a simple tale, told extremely well. An epic Western, it adopts the same picture-painting style of the likes of The Hired Hand and Open Range, building up the characters and the setting, letting you absorb it all in, and then giving you the true drama. In its TV format, it has the added advantage of retaining a suitably long runtime, just enough to tell the story at a pace that is perfect for this contemplative voyage. As much about beautiful sunsets and hard laborious journeys, as about morality and humanity, or even gunfights, this production manages to capture the essence of this new breed of Western, a more mature, subtle variation on the John Wayne offerings of old.
Robert Duvall is on scenery-chomping top form, bringing great presence to the movie. Sure, he's the same here as he was in Open Range, but that's far from a bad thing - it is almost what we like best from him. Able to captivate, whether washing his head in the morning or ruminating over battle tactics, he is the core of Broken Range, the heart and soul. Opposite him we have Spiderman's underdeveloped Sandman, Thomas Haden Church, who - in some ways - adopts the same part as that played by Kevin Costner in Open Range. Clearly reserved about using violence, it is obvious that this restraint comes more from his concerns over the death that he is more than capable of dealing. A tough cinder-block of a man, he is well-suited in the role, which offers him some room to manoeuvre but not so much so that his talents are stretched beyond his range. Bit parts are rounded out in the form of Greta Scacchi's 'mature' prostitute Nola (the only character who seems to have been crow-barred into the plot a little), James Russo's weasel and Chris Mulkey's positively evil villain of the piece, and standing out from the Chinese crew the heroes 'adopt' is Gwendoline Yeo's Sun Foy, who develops a plausibly forbidden bond with Thomas Haden Church's outwardly stoic Tom.
Co-written and Directed by Walter Hill (who gives up a lot of the guns and violence and punch that many of his big hits had - Red Heat, 48 Hours, Extreme Prejudice), this is a well-refined piece, the gorgeous scenery captured with a keen eye, the smaller moments between characters as acutely observed as the bigger set-pieces, and the end result being something thoroughly watchable, subtly compelling and really quite rewarding. Westerns may not be to everybody's tastes, and revisionist Westerns potentially narrow the field even further, but if you're a fan of Duvall you really should give this a try - it may convert you. For Western fans, of course, this is a no-brainer - compulsory viewing.
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