Monday, June 18, 2012


Hollywood has all but forsaken westerns. Typically, the sagebrushers that are produced turn out lame. "Recoil" director Terry Miles and "Knockout" scenarists Eric Jacobs and Joseph Nasser prove the exception to the rule with their above-average remake of the vintage John Wayne B-movie western "The Dawn Rider.” The Wayne oater was a remake of director Lloyd Nosler's oater "Galloping Thru" (1931) with Tom Tyler.  As it turns out, "Dawn Rider" (*** out of ****) is the second time that "The Dawn Rider" has been remade; director George Waggner's "Western Trails" (1938) preceded it as the first remake of "The Dawn Rider." In their remake, Miles and his scribes have opened up the action considerably and supplemented the narrative with greater depth as well as length.  The original ran a scant 53 minutes compared with the second remake at 94 minutes. Mind you, Christian Slater couldn't fill John Wayne's boots, but he makes a credible western hero in his own right. Donald Sutherland co-stars as a heavily-bearded, bulletproof lawman on our protagonist's trail.  No lawman pursued Wayne in director Ray N. Bradbury's 1935 original. Indeed, the Sutherland character recalls the sheriff that Harry Carey, Sr., portrayed in a later Wayne horse opera "Angel and the Badman." According to Miles, he appropriated the indefatigable lawman figure from another of his own screenplays. Lochlyn Munro makes a good villain, while Jill Hennessy emerges as our hero's romantic partner. She isn't relegated to the periphery.  She brandishes a revolver and holds her own against the guys. The production values are sturdy, and the cast looks seasoned as well as believable. Miles stages the shoot-outs with reasonable flair, but this oater doesn't break any ground, except casting Slater as a western hero. The villain resorts to a life of crime to pay off a bill involving ownership of a ranch. The hardware appears authentic enough, with cap and ball pistols sometimes substituting for cartridge carrying sidearms.  Although it won't win any Oscars, "Dawn Rider" ranks as one of the better westerns to trot across the screen.
"Dawn Rider" opens as John Mason (Christian Slater of "True Romance") urinates in the woods and then checks the cherry tomatoes in his garden.  Mason marks an X through October 13 on a calendar.  He has been holed up in the cabin for over three months. Later, U.S. Marshal Cochrane (Donald Sutherland of "M.A.S.H.") and two trigger-happy gunmen ride up and cut loose with a barrage of rifle-fire.  Cochrane reprimands them for shooting indiscriminately into the cabin.  He stands to lose a $500 bonus if he doesn't bring Mason in alive.  When they storm the cabin, these fellows hear an explosion, and trapdoor in the floor shudders as Mason makes his escape through a tunnel without injury.  Meantime, in Sarsaparilla, Wyoming, a gang of outlaws wearing flour sacks as masks shoot it out in broad daylight, kill a marshal, and steal a bag that contains only mail but no money.  Rudd Gordon (Lochlyn Munro of "Recoil") is desperate to round up $5000 to pay the debt on the ranch he owes to the Standard Rail Company.  Rudd's sister Alice (Jill Hennessy of "Wild Hogs") lives with him.  Mind you, Alice has no idea that her brother is a desperado. 

In Grey Falls, Montana, Mason is drinking in a saloon when he intervenes on behalf of Ben McClure (Ben Cotton of "Brothers and Sisters") who is being cheated in poker game. The locals recognize Mason from the reputation that he acquired in Cincinnati in a gunfight. Mason denies ever having been in the Ohio town. Miles turns this into a running gag. This is similar to a line in the John Wayne movie "Big Jake" where Wayne contradicts everybody that he comes into contact with about being dead.  Later, McClure and he share the same campfire. Ben shows Mason a ring that he plans to give to his beloved.  As it turns out, Ben works alongside Mason's father in the freight office in Promise, Wyoming. Dad Mason (Kenneth W. Yanko of "Ignition") greets his son with a rifle in the face. Dad likes to speak Spanish as a second language. Mason objects to Dad's Spanish. He abhors Dad's use of Spanish because his father married a Mexican woman after his mother died.  Mason has never forgiven his father. The use of Spanish is another running gag that pays off later because Dad recognizes the killers that rob him from double X-brand on them.  These owlhoots literally have the ranch brand in their skill. Afterward, Mason collides with Alice on main street, and they flash their revolvers at each other. She offers to let him stay with them. When Mason rides into town another day, the flour sack gang robs the freight office and Dad dies during the robbery. During the fracas, Mason swaps shots with the outlaws and catches a bullet. Alice doctors him back to health. Each time that Mason gets close to figuring out who the outlaws are, Rudd intervenes and kills them. During one robbery, an outlaw steals Ben's ring and Rudd confiscates the ring from him. Rudd gives the ring to his sister. Ben is sweet on Alice, and he gets jealous when he learns from Rudd that Alice and Mason are lovers.  Mason suspects something when he spots the ring on Alice's finger.  Later, to throw the scent off their trail, Rudd and his gunmen massacre Cochrane and his deputies in a meadow.

Miles and his scenarists have changed quite a bit from the John Wayne version of "Dawn Rider."  Not only does Mason have a reputation as a gunslinger from Cincinnati, but he has also spent time in a Mexican prison.  The John Wayne protagonist in the 1935 version was lily-white pure.  Miles' remake preserves the plot device involving McClure's ring, but adds the complication that drives Rudd to crime to pay off his debt.  Alice and Mason are old friends, too, unlike the couple in the Wayne original.  She sleeps with a revolver stashed under her pillow.  This plot device is introduced right after she nurses Mason and paid off later when one of Rudd's gunman tries to rape her. "Dawn Rider" benefits from fresh scenery, enough shoot-outs, and a twist at the end involving the shooting of Cochrane.