The quiet ecstasy of the opening (horsemen silhouetted on a grassy hill, already in the slow-motion of legend) reveals the taciturn elation of a director at last able to visit the Western image he grew up with. John Ford is Walter Hill's idol, though Hill has also absorbed Peckinpah and Vietnam -- nostalgia is shot through upheaval, a bank is robbed and the outlaws unwind in a whorehouse, where Clell Miller (Randy Quaid) pulls a pistol on the troubadour to change "Battle Cry of Freedom" for "I'm a Good Old Rebel." The West here is vanishing, yet there's still room for chivalry, ritual and the importance of family, both in the characters' lives and in the eccentric casting (James and Stacy Keach play Jesse and Frank James, David, Keith, and Robert Carradine are the Younger boys, Dennis Quaid plays Ed Miller). The trajectory is toward the Northfield raid, where the path of every bullet is traced and felt (Hill acknowledges The Wild Bunch with horses crashing through the glass window, then goes his own way) and the bandits flee with their bodies and dreams in pieces. An "action director," yet some of Hill's best work lies in elegiac tableaux -- a stagecoach holdup finds Harry Carey, Jr. with smoking pipe and Dixie feistiness, Jim Younger pushing his beloved (Amy Striker) on a swing is a lustrous pastoral spread, Charlie and Bob Ford (Christopher and Nicholas Guest) step out of the dance floor and toward the camera as the crowd behind them melts into out-of-focus abstraction. A detailed, elegant knife fight, choreographed by a legend-fixated modernist; Belle Starr (Pamela Reed) is shrouded under layers of genre myth even while standing naked in her bathtub, Jesse James is given a final, iconic profile while adjusting a sign reading "God bless our home" (Sam Fuller's telling of the story is evoked by name as Bob Ford aims the gun barrel at the lenses). As much of a dream-film as The Driver, in other words, a Western Nirvana followed by the Purgatory of Wild Bill and the Dantean descent of Deadwood. With Savannah Smith, Kevin Brothy, James Whitmore Jr., Fran Ryan, and James Remar.
--- Fernando F. Croce