Directed by: Steve Miner
Starring: James Van Der Beek, Dylan Mc Dermott, Ashton Kutcher, Usher Raymond, Rachael Leigh Cook, Alfred Molina
There's a certain advantage to diminished expectations, as was aptly demonstrated when I approached the screening of Texas Rangers with the same degree of anticipation usually reserved having my tires rotated. Looking at the cast -- with the eyebrow-raising exception of Alfred Molina (Chocolat) as a character improbably named King Fisher (can the Amos 'n' Andy jokes be far behind?) -- and remembering the cosmic God-awfulness of the abomination known as American Outlaws, I was fully expecting yet another essay in the youth western sub-genre that might best be called "Cute Boys with Big Guns." Certainly, that was uppermost in the mind of one critic who branded this film Dude, Where's My Cattle?. There's no getting around that there's a bit of this in Texas Rangers: namely, a purely gratuitous scene designed to get Messrs. Van Der Beek's and Kutcher's clothes off, and a flat and insipid quasi-romance between Kutcher and an appallingly miscast Rachael Leigh Cook (who is blessedly absent from most of the film). The movie also features cliches aplenty, situations raised that are then just dropped, and one of the great missed opportunities of all time as concerns a dangling plot device and the villainous King Fisher's come-uppance. (Without giving too much away, it's hard not to wonder why the script drags in an episode where Fisher steals a tiger in the process of kidnapping its owner and murdering her husband, and then forgets he has the damned animal.) So all in all, it is a bit of a mess, but it's not unenjoyable and it boasts a kind of absurd sincerity that's actually rather appealing. The TV-star-heavy cast may not be in the Olivier category, but neither are they disgraceful within the limits of pretty standard horse-opera plotting. Even the ultra-callow Ashton Kutcher (forever cursed with the image of "dude"/"sweet" crosstalk) is surprisingly good. In fact, there's a certain freshness to the fact that this new Texas Rangers recruit is an awkward -- albeit non-comedic -- stumblebum who couldn't hit the broadsides of a dozen barns and really doesn't have it in him to shoot anybody. It could easily have been played for obvious laughs, but playing it for genuine awkwardness and ineptitude effectively deglamorizes the whole Western-hero shtick, making it seem considerably more real. The best performance, though, comes from Leonor Varela, who played the horribly scarred Marta in John Boorman's The Tailor of Panama, as Fisher's unwilling mistress. There's blessed little plot. It's mostly a situation: After the Civil War, Leander McNelly (Dylan McDermott) is hired by the government to reinstate the Texas Rangers and help rid Texas of the outlaws that are essentially ruling the state. In this, he's joined by Lincoln Rogers Dunnison (James Van Der Beek) and George Durham (Kutcher), both of whom also have personal reasons for wanting to run King Fisher to earth. There's some historical authenticity here, but not enough to matter all that much, since this is basically a redressing of an old-fashioned shoot-'em-up. Director Steve Miner started his career with slasher pictures, such the original Friday the 13th, before graduating to somewhat more stylish horror and cult films -- Warlock, Halloween H20 -- and here demonstrates a reasonable capacity for staging action (marred somewhat by the improbably PG-13 bloodless violence) and an eye for effortless grandeur. He's no John Ford, but he's not bad and he obviously respects the genre. Plus, he evidences an interesting approach in his use of natural light, achieving an unusual and unglamorous look by not using fill light to make his invariably attractive stars appealingly photographed. If, in reality, the faces would be in shadow, that's how they appear in the film. It's a nice touch to a film that, unfortunately, almost no one will likely bother to see, based not on what it actually is, but on what its cast and idiotic ad campaign ("Count Your Bullets") make it look like.
-- reviewed by Ken Hanke