It’s true that “Texas Rangers” has been gathering dust on the Miramax shelf for a couple of years, missing a whole raft of announced release dates. (Now the studio is sending it into theatres stealthily, without press screenings or the usual big advertisement blitz.) But that’s not the reason for its decidedly moldy odor. That smell derives from the fact that the picture is just a collection of hoary western cliches, rendered all the worse by the fact that, in a futile attempt to make it attractive to today’s TV-bred audiences, it features a lot of pretty-boy leading men from network series, all of whom are predictably unconvincing dressed up to impersonate late nineteenth-century sagebrush heroes. Unfortunately instead of reviving the Hollywood western, “Rangers,” like last summer’s “American Outlaws,” will be just one more nail driven into its coffin.
The script is based, though as loosely as one could possibly imagine, on the actual story behind the reconstitution of the Rangers to do battle with gangs of murderous cattle rustlers in south Texas in the years after the Civil War. Predictably, the action surrounds a ramrod-straight, smoldering veteran by the name name of Leander McNelly (Dylan McDermott, of “The Practice”); though such a fellow actually existed, here he’s afflicted with a nagging cough that has distressingly “Camille”-like connotations and is otherwise made to seem a fictional caricature. In the present telling, McNelly reluctantly takes to the range again at the governor’s invitation to assemble a ragtag bunch of recruits to go after notorious badman King Fisher (the implausibility of the name, with its unfortunate “Amos ‘N Andy” vibe, is matched by the Snidely Whiplash-style performance by Alfred Molina). Among the thirty fellows who sign up are the obligatory East Coast tenderfoot Lincoln Rogers Dennison (just think of a younger version of the character played by Gregory Peck in “The Big Country”–the character seems to be based, at least partially, on N.A. Jennings, who published his memoir “A Texas Ranger” in 1899, although the only source listed for the screenplay is a narrative history by George Durham), played by “Dawson’s Creek” heartthrob James Van Der Beek, who’s witnessed the soulless Fisher’s murder of his parents and brother; a supposedly endearing Missouri doofus, (Ashton Kutcher, doing the same dumb-as-a-post-beefcake routine he specializes in on “The ’70s Show,” though the time around it’s the 1870s); and the token wise-cracking African-American (singer Usher Raymond), whose obvious ability overcomes the prejudice even of McNally’s grizzled sergeant (Robert Patrick, the sort of he-man softie who calls an injured woman “little lady”), who comes to have a grudging admiration for the cocksure black man. Other cardboard figures on both sides are played by such lookers as Matt Keeslar, Vincent Spano and Marco Leonardi, with just a smidgen of authenticity added by the presence of Randy Travis. All these galoots (most of whom look distinctly uncomfortable in their period gear) engage in the expected bouts of jocular horseplay–pale reflections of the kind of male-bonding stuff so familiar from John Ford and Howard Hawks westerns–as well as some bloody battles. At one point the action moves to what’s called the Duke ranch, but unhappily neither Bo, Luke, Uncle Jessie or Daisy is on hand; instead we must be satisfied with an increasingly wizened Tom Skerritt, playing the place’s laconic owner, and his supposedly charming but actually quite unpleasant daughter (Rachel Leigh Cook), whose smugly pacifistic attitudes come across as irritatingly dumb. There’s a second woman among the principals–Leonor Varela she’s a Mexican juggler, if you can believe it, whose circus-owning husband is dispatched by the evil Fisher. (If this sounds ridiculous in print, just imagine how it plays on screen.) These two figures serve as the needed potential romantic interest for our heroes, but as usual they’re purely peripheral to what’s fundamentally an old-fashioned guy’s movie.
It should be obvious from all this that there’s nothing new in “Texas Rangers.” Still, its hackneyed elements could theoretically have served as the basis for a satisfyingly familiar picture–like a comfortable old shoe–if it were not for its crude craftsmanship. The cast is certainly a problem: McDermott is simply too incessantly intense (it’s not as oppressive on the tube as it is on the screen), Van Der Beek drearily bland, Kutcher obviously over-the-top, Raymond predictably anachronistic, Varela generically sultry, and Patrick stolid. Cook, Keeslar and Spano barely register, while Molina does so all too strongly; a pity he doesn’t have a moustache to twirl–he has to be content with a malevolent grin. None of them benefit from the bland dialogue, or from the script’s rickety construction, which calls for the periodic insertion of maps and narration to inform us of what’s going on; and the direction by Steve Miner is as unsubtle as one would expect from the helmer of two of the “Friday the 13th” sequels. To make matters worse, the film has been very choppily edited, so that necessary developments come across as ridiculously abrupt (Lincoln is transformed from a clumsy neophyte to a capable gunfighter, for instance, with absurd speed). This probably results from constant tinkering with the picture over the last twenty-four months, which undoubtedly resulted in whittling down what might once have been a wannabe epic (just think of “The Big Country” again) to a mere hour- and-a-half. (Not that what remains is good enough to make one yearn for a director’s cut that might be as protracted as the original “Heaven’s Gate.”)
It would have been nice if “Texas Rangers” had worked. The western was once a standard Hollywood genre, and while it was as prone to schlock as any other, it occasionally produced a gem; it would be pleasant if it could do so again. Apart from “Unforgiven,” however–which was actually more of an anti-western, turning conventions on their head in the same way that “High Noon” had done decades earlier–nothing in the form years has succeeded in recent years, neither the pretty-boy glamorizations that kicked off with “Young Guns” nor such attempts to jazz up the oater in modern, nihilistic, feminist style like “The Quick and the Dead” or “Bad Girls.” By simply unimaginatively reiterating all the old conventions, “Rangers” resembles a resurrected corpse, a zombie without a real spark of life; it goes through all the motions, but just seems pointless and redundant. As far as horse operas go, it’s a broken-down old nag infested with fleas and well past the point of being saddle-worthy.