Sometimes, it seems to me that what we’ve labeled “Westerns” in fiction and on film or TV over the generations really should have been called “Southwesterns.” Because that’s the geography that became iconic in the genre.
The combination of arid, less usable and therefore less developed land, parks and wilderness meant that “The Searchers” could be set in Texas when we could plainly see it was the sandy, dry, unfarmable Monument Valley, Arizona. Almost every film and TV show was parked firmly in tumbleweed, sand and bare rock country, so much so that the occasional departure — “Shane,” in Big Sky Country, “True Grit” in mountainous, green Colorado, “Jeremiah Johnson” in the prettiest parts of Utah — could be refreshing.
The recent John Cusack Western “Never Grow Old” was set in the Pacific Northwest and filmed in Ireland. “The Sisters Brothers” was set in Oregon, but filmed in Romania, and that different look and feel made for fresh takes on the law-of-the-gun genre.
“The Desperate Riders” is a low-budget Western that Roku bought from Lionsgate, a film of damp and fog and snow.. It’s a little disorienting, even if the occasional trope of the genre makes an appearance — a saloon that doesn’t quite look like anything Miss Kitty would run, a mansion that plainly predates what one character takes pains to describe as “The War of Northern Aggression.”
Wherever the fictional “territories” setting, it was filmed in Tennessee, full of trees and forests and the cabins made from the logs of those trees. Fair enough, as I used to live there and often thought “Somebody ought to set and film a post-Civil War Western here.”
The dialogue is plenty flinty, a baseline requirement for any horse opera.
“I don’t think I’mo let you boys kill a kid today.”
“Ma’paw says th’only thing more important than a man’s gun is his humility!”
But the entire enterprise was shot between 9:40 and 9:45 am, the harshest and least filtered light of the day. The cast could have been costumed at their local Western outfitters outlet, with hats from The Halloween Store.
The cast has a couple of “names,” but it’s not like anybody expects country singer and Wounded Warrior Project champion Trace Adkins to get better, the more films he does.
Tom Berenger plays a not-to-be-trifled-with dentist/bullet wound surgeon, the most credible character (a Texas combat surgeon decades before) and most credible actor playing a part.
The gun-slinging has a “first take, first time I ever picked up a six-shooter” feel and speed. This holds true all the way through the cast, in scene after shootout scene. Why you’d make every confrontation a quick draw contest when nobody in your cast can fake his way through that is beyond me.
And the plot — with blood feuds, a teenage card sharp/gunslinger (Sam Ashby), kidnapping and pursuit — is a tried and true, but trite here. Adkins plays the heavy, who kidnaps a woman related to a family that landed him in prison. A loner in a duster (Drew Waters) decides to make this his business, so he and a lady sharp shooter (Vanessa Evigan) are determined to save her.
Michael Feifer, a prolific producer-director of TV fare ranging from Hallmarkish (“12 Pups of Christmas”) to horror (“Psycho Sweet 16”) and pretty much everything in between — including the odd (ahem) Western (“A Soldier’s Revenge”) — has no feel for the genre. None.
All of which is a far bigger hindrance to “The Desperate Riders” coming off than the pretty, rustic and yet decidedly non-Southwestern locations. Planning your shoot so that you can film horses in snow is all for naught when the script is crap, nobody good enough to expect a decent paycheck will sign on and the director is probably better at filming puppies.
Rating: PG-13, gun violence
Cast: Drew Waters, Vanessa Evigan, Victoria Pratt, Sam Ashby, Cowboy Troy, Trace Adkins and Tom Berenger
Credits: Directed by Michael Feifer, scripted by Lee Martin. A Roku TV release.
Running time: 1:30