Texas Rangers (2001)


1867. In the after-effects of the Civil War, Texas is a sleeping giant falling prey to vicious marauding and theft by Mexican invaders. The Rangers were disbanded to fight for the South; now they are to be regrouped, with a former pastor turned lawman Leander McNelly (Dylan McDermott) in the lead. This tall, slender, handsome cowboy whose family was murdered in his absence is found digging himself a grave at his homestead, certain that he won't last the winter due to his fight with tuberculosis. 


Persuaded by the government to undertake the training and leadership of thirty rag-tag, half-bit former schoolboys, McNelly finds himself at odds, not only with his own priorities and shaken faith, but his inability to foresee possible ambushes. One member of this poor crop of unshaven boys is Dunnison (James Van Der Beek), whose family was slaughtered by the Mexicans. Due to his writing talents, he is chosen as McNelly's personal aid and undertakes documenting all of the reports to Washington. With very little time for training, the Rangers saddle up and ride off to meet their fates in rounding up these rustlers. But when McNelly makes a terrible miscalculation, his men are placed in danger, shot down one by one until a retreat is forced upon them.


Prejudice, poor shooting skills, and mistakes are the least of his problems. There is also a traitor among them... a character who will turncoat... and a violent climax in Mexico. As a side plot, Dunnison vies for the attentions of Caroline (Rachael Leigh Cook), a well-to-do young woman who believes that the Rangers are little more than killers themselves. "If you shoot or hang a man for stealing beef," she says, "you are saying that his life is worth that steer." To make things worse, she's deeply attracted to his best friend and riding partner, George. Also along for the ride is a kidnapped Spanish gypsy girl and a young black man who is determined to prove himself worthy of being a sharpshooter rather than a scout. 


Texas Rangers has a good heart and could have been a great film. It's been a long time since there's been a truly excellent western on the market -- not since Jimmy Stewart donned his white hat and rode into the west. Sadly, this one will not fill the void. The fact that the film was not pre-released for the press is a dead giveaway that something is lacking. The production, which was pushed back nearly two years for a quiet cinematic release, was sneaked into theaters and will probably slip back out when the nation is swept into Lord of the Rings mania.  The film had great potential -- a reverend as a lawman? What would his inner struggle and inner torments be? McNelly does give us some bright moments -- such as his indecision over whether or not to execute a young woman who has knowingly betrayed them, and his obvious horror and self-doubt after a major mistake... but that is the extent of his character development. What made him accept the job as a Ranger? Where did his personal faith collide with his job?


In addition, he seems almost to turn away from God at times and evokes cruel, heartless punishment on the captured Mexicans with his "take no prisoners" rule. (Although he is redeemed by the end.) Dylan McDermott is very, very good in his role; it's the fault of the script writers that he wasn't given more of a challenge. The film is largely devoid of harsh objectionable content, if you can overlook the violence (which is nearly impossible, seeing as it makes up for the lack of plot). There's less than a dozen minor profanities and no sensuality or nudity, although a few innuendos pop up. The violence is extreme and harsh, although never bloody or particularly graphic. Lots of gunfights. It's actually nice that filmmakers decided to go against new tradition and do the "bang-bang-fall-down" routine instead of the graphic slow-motion images and blood that tainted The Patriot.  Many of the Rangers are shot and/or killed, a few people are hung, a woman is threatened at gunpoint. 


The film abounds with clever camera angles, gorgeous photography and costuming, a stunning soundtrack, and truly unanticipated moments -- ambushes, traitors, and clever banter. Sadly it is based more on gunfights and cheap thrills than pliable emotional conflict. Characters are under-developed; we hope they don't get killed but don't really have a reason why. The female leads in particular are too overlooked, the actresses unable to exhibit their full potential. What this film desperately needed was a side plot or a stronger main plot to draw from -- more emotion, less coldness. Perhaps a stronger romance; more background information, and a little more insight into McNelly's personal struggle between his Christian faith and values and the dirty job that he's been asked to do might have done the trick. Too many characters are left in the lurch, their personalities trailing off as if the writer didn't know what to do with them. I came away sorry for the under-development and violence, but more than willing to watch it again.


If you like the tradition of old westerns, Texas Rangers fits the bill. But if you shy away from nonstop violence and cheap character development, you may want to pass this one over. It has a lot of potential... but is just a little too slow on the draw. 

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