Justin Lee, the new King of the B Movies, is back on the screen for his sixth movie in the past two years, a Western wearing the weary title, “Badland.”
The writer-director of “The Reckoning,” “Big Legend” and “Any Bullet Will Do” has lined up his most impressive cast yet — Oscar winner Mira Sorvino, 2020 Oscar honoree Wes Studi, screen legend Bruce Dern, and veteran players such as Tony “Candyman” Todd, Amanda Wyss, James Russo and Jeff Fahey.
And yet the prolific Lee still has room for the hulking country music baritone Trace Adkins in a key role. And Lee for his leadiing man, Lee is still leaning on his muse, a competent but colorless actor, Kevin Makely, whose chief virtues are that he looks a bit like Bradley Cooper, and he’s always available.
The result is the usual limp, long-winded lope through genre conventions, saddled to a leading man lacking the spark to make it compelling.
“Badland” follows the portentiously-named Mathias Breecher (Makely), a Pinkerton detective turned into bounty hunter, prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner by a Reconstruction Era senator (Tony Todd) for purposes of rounding up ex-Confederate war criminals.
In a series of episodes given chapter headings — “Chapter One: The General,” etc. — Makely’s loner with a two six-shooters, a six day beard, a duster and a saddlebag full of warrants, hunts down men who carried out massacres in the Civil War.
Adkins, all presence and rumble (as opposed to acting skill) and sporting an eyepatch, is The General, intoning in a Foghorn Leghorn drawl, “May ah inquire as to whether or not you are a VETERAN, suh?”
He confesses that he has “cut the thoats of many a private,” before Breecher mentions his need for “an oak tree big enough to hold a man of your stature.”
The murderous good ol’boy barely has time to finish his drink and mutter “Damn those Yankees, damn them AND their ideals,” when Breecher has gunned down the general and his entire gang.
And so the movie goes, Breecher hunting down “The Sheriff” (Fahey) or whoever, facing down armed gangs protecting his suspect, leaving bodies crumpled in the dust wherever he goes.
I think my favorite chapter might be “The Cooke’s.” Yes, the chapter title has a typo in it. When you’re cranking them out as fast as Lee, niceties like grammar and editing get shortchanged.
It’s not the cutting of the film that is the issue here, although everything shuffles along at an invalid’s pace, and at least some of that is due to pedestrian post production. No, the biggest flaws in Lee’s projects are the lack of fresh passes at the script, workshopping, story-editing. Judicious trimming would cut down on the eye-rolling dialogue, for starters.
Here’s an example. Breecher has shown up to confront “Captain Cooke,” played by Bruce Dern in yet another bed-bound performance. He’s a sickly old man, and rather than make the murderous bastard face justice, Breecher decides to just wait for him to die. Maybe he’s sweet on Cooke’s daughter (Sorvino).
“It is my job to watch men like you take their last breath,” Breecher intones. Good line. And then Lee has Makely ruin it with an anti-climax.
“This is the burden I must carry in this life.”
Fahey is, as could be expected, the most impressive villain in the lot. Even his character is woefully underdeveloped, his crimes only cursorily mentioned. But he is silky smooth in his Sleepy Time Down South drawl.
“Sleep evaaaaades me,” he purrs, “for mah mind runs RAMpant with thoughts of the past!”
There are anachronism in the speech, and the private police force Pinkertons, post Civil War, were involved in tracking desperados who robbed trains (The James/Younger Gang) on behalf of the railroad companies, and trying to smother the newly-born labor movement in the crib on behalf of the Robber Barons. They never did anything so righteous as chase down war criminals.
But the shoot-outs are at least 1950s TV level sharp. The production values are solid. There’s more grit and grime than in earlier Justin Lee Westerns, even if he goes overboard with the buzzing flies sound effect.
We know it stank back then, hoss. We can SEE the smell.
And “Badland” was filmed on the same “studio ranch” that has been home to TV’s “Westworld.”
But until Lee finds himself a story editor and a more literate, genre-savvy group of readers to workshop his screenplays, until he figures out that hitching his wagon to a star who is more “available” than charismatic, these films are never going to hide their malnourished, rushed origins.
Quick and dirty, in other words.
Cast: Kevin Makely, Mira Sorvino, Jeff Fahey, Tony Todd, Wes Studi, Trace Adkins, James Russo and Bruce Dern.
Credits: Written and directed by Justin Lee. A Cinedigm release.
Running time: 1:42