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THE DESPERATE TRAIL

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Linda Fiorentino, Sam Elliott, Craig Sheffer, Frank Whaley
Director: P.J. Pesce
Audio: English, French, or Spanish monaural
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Video: Color, full-screen
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: Trailers
Length: 92 minutes
Release Date: May 17, 2005

"Lay down and die, boy."

Film ***

Back in the mid-1990's, the Hollywood western was considered a defunct film genre.  Not to beat a dead horse too much, but the rare cinematic western offerings which did rear up their ugly heads were generally mediocre or received such tepid public responses that they dropped from sight without much fanfare, a sad fade into the sunset for a once-proud Hollywood tradition.

Fortunately, the western remained alive and kicking on broadcast and cable television.  One cable company in particular, TNT, seemed quite keen on churning out westerns regularly.  Among TNT's more enjoyable frontier treats during this period was The Desperate Trail (1995), a flashback to the good ol' days of dusty outlaws and stoic lawmen.

There are few twists or major surprises in the film.  While some aspects of the genre have been updated for contemporary tastes, The Desperate Trail can hardly be considered a revisionist western.  True to its classic roots, this film features a bit of everything great about the Wild West - frantic shoot-outs, posse chases, stagecoach robberies, tragic deaths, a damsel in distress, and more!  Okay, there are no Indians, but this is still a rollicking-fun film, just the sort of Wild West adventure that used to thrill so many young and impressionable minds during the movie matinees of yesteryear.

One new update for The Desperate Trail is the presence of a strong female heroine as the central protagonist, Sarah O'Rourke.  Strong female leads are quite rare in westerns, but Sarah is fiercely-independent and able to handle herself capably in any gunfight.  She is not a weeping wife or hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold, either; Sarah is a no-nonsense gal, feminine enough in her guile yet wise enough to the deceitful and uncharitable ways of the frontier cowboy, too.  As played by the sultry and entirely delectable Linda Fiorentino, Sarah is one tough cookie as likely to win a man's heart as to shoot him between the eyeballs.

And speaking of shooting, there is plenty of this to be enjoyed in The Desperate Trail.  In fact, the frequent and bloody gunfights in this film are more akin to the westerns of Sam Peckinpah than to those of traditional Hollywood.  The Desperate Trail even starts out with one such sequence, an exhilarating if failed stagecoach robbery.  Unfortunately for the would-be robbers, the passengers inside the stagecoach are in no mood for any petty nuisances.  The cold and calculating Marshall Bill Speakes (Sam Elliott) is escorting a lady prisoner, Sarah O'Rourke, to a one-way appointment with a hangman's noose, and he does not mean to be tardy.  Jack Cooper (Craig Sheffer) is another passenger, a seemingly mild-mannered gentleman who turns out to be a sly con man himself.  When the hapless stagecoach robbers attack, Sarah sees her opportunity to escape while the Marshall fends off the bandits.

Sarah and Jack soon form a reluctant partnership and build a heist of their own.  She needs money to start up a cattle ranch and to earn an honest living.  Jack too has a need for cash, although his reasons are more nebulous, and he does not intend to reveal them until some real trust is established between the pair.  As for the wily Marshall, he isn't too tolerant about being foiled by a woman, and so he subsequently forms a posse to chase after the two outlaws.  The Marshall has his own personal reasons for particularly desirin' to see Sarah hanged, and this internal conflict between his private vendetta and deliverance of justice frequently obscures the Marshall's better judgment.

As such, these three adversaries are more anti-heroes than the angelically-good or irrefutably-bad dichotomies of the classic western.  Sarah, Jack, and the Marshall each have their sympathetic virtues and their character flaws.  Whether Sarah deserves to hang rests in the eye of the beholder, likewise for whether the ends justify the violent means for both Jack and the Marshall.  Nevertheless, until the final climactic shoot-out, The Desperate Trail takes audiences along a non-stop adventure ride towards ultimate redemption or tragedy.

As a western, The Desperate Trail is pure fun with just enough depth to allow audiences to empathize with the characters.  And until the Hollywood western makes a true cinematic comeback (if ever), let's hope that television stations like TNT continue to produce these entertaining ventures back into the days of the good ol' Wild West.

Video **

The picture shows some moderate grain, particularly in darker sequences.  Dust specks pop up every so often.  Flesh tones are somewhat orange-reddish in quality.  Colors are occasionally muddy with mild bleed at times.  While the detail levels and clarity are quite acceptable, especially considering this film's television roots, they do not quite match up to the usual standard for first-rate DVDs.

On a side note, The Desperate Trail might have been intended once as a theatrical release, as the version which appears on this disc contains brief nudity and lewdly descriptive language otherwise not present on the more family-friendly TNT broadcast version.

Audio **

Audio is available in English, French, or Spanish two-channel monaural sound.  The quality is quite acceptable for a television broadcast if not particularly dynamic.  One especially noteworthy quality of the audio track is the sweetly haunting music, highly reminiscent of Ennio Morricone's wonderful scores for his Sergio Leone collaborations.  This fine score, by Stephen Endelman, adds an extra element of poignancy to the storyline.

Features *

There are only two pitifully short teasers for the TNT westerns Purgatory and Last Stand at Saber River.  Also, don't leave this disc unattended in the DVD player for too long, or the movie will automatically start without you.  And then re-start again.  And again.

Summary:

"In case you ain't noticed, this Remington's staring at your face."

The Desperate Trail may not blaze any new paths, but it is a perfectly enjoyable western.  So, grab some popcorn and drinks, dim the lights, and get ready to enjoy a thrilling adventure in the classic western mode.

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