Writer-director Justin Lee carves another notch on his six-shooter — or at least another credit on his IMDb page — with “Badland,” his third indie Western (after the direct-to-video titles “Any Bullet Will Do” and “A Reckoning”) to be released within the past two years. This time out, Lee is working with a budget that allows for more polished production values and a larger number of familiar faces in the supporting cast, all of which may help him attract an audience beyond the chronically underserved demographic of die-hard western fans who often must settle for less (sometimes, a lot less) when they’re checking out the new DVD/Blu-ray releases at stores like Best Buy and Wal-Mart.
Better still, the new film — which opens theatrically in 11 markets Nov. 1 simultaneously with on-demand and digital HD release — is, taken on its own terms, a solidly crafted piece of work that, despite its leisurely pacing, manages to infuse a respectable amount of fresh vigor into clichés and conventions common to shoot-’em-ups set during the post-Civil War era. And while it would be overstating the case to describe “Badland” as revisionist, it does earn respect for being a Western in which good guys actually have to pause and reload — repeatedly — during extended gunfights.
Kevin Makey, Lee’s frequent collaborator, persuasively inhabits the lead role of Matthias William Breecher, a man of few words and many bullets. With his gravelly voice, formidable stare and confidant physicality, Makey really doesn’t have to do all that much to establish his tough-guy bona fides while portraying a Pinkerton detective hired by a slave-turned-Senator (Tony Todd) to track down war criminals who fought for the Confederacy. Indeed, throughout much of “Badland,” Lee positions the actor as an unassuming anchor for scenes that are otherwise dominated by well-cast supporting players whose colorful dialogue is peppered with lines that occasionally stretch into mini soliloquies.
The narrative is divided into chapter breaks, with an attention-grabbing prologue serving the dual purpose of introducing Breecher as a lethally efficient manhunter, and showcasing singer/actor Trace Adkins as a grandiloquent former general who, not surprisingly, would rather not be hanged for his wartime misdeeds.
Adkins drawls, gesticulates, and generally milks his cameo role with shamelessly entertaining brio, so that it’s almost a disappointment when Breecher summarily dispatches the general (along with a few flunkies) before the film’s title appears on screen.
This leads to the longest and best stretch of “Badland,” as Breecher tracks down another war criminal, Reginald Cooke (Bruce Dern), only to find the aged ex-Confederate is bedridden and fatally ill on his ranch under the watchful eye of Sarah (Mira Sorvino), his resourceful daughter. Breecher figures there’s no use arresting, or shooting, a man who’s already so close to death’s door, so he decides to simply stick around long enough to let nature take its course.
This, naturally, gives Cooke ample time with the Pinkerton to talk — sometimes angrily, sometimes regretfully — about his ill-spent life and his loving daughter. Meanwhile, Sarah spends almost as many minutes conversing with the taciturn stranger, describing her mixed emotions about her father and their failing farm — and her growing attraction to Breecher. Dern and Sorvino are so effective and affecting in this “chapter,” and Makey is so convincing as Breecher’s careful arm’s-length reserve begins to dissipate, that when there’s an emotionally and dramatically satisfying resolution to this episode — brought about courtesy of a violent land-grabber played by James Russo — it feels like the perfect place to end the movie.
But then Breecher gets on his horse and heads elsewhere for another half-hour or so.
The structural disjointedness of “Badland” is more than a tad jarring. On the other hand, what follows the interlude at the Cooke ranch can’t be dismissed as filler, if only because the final third of the movie focuses on another amusing spectacle of hambone scenery-chewing. As Huxley Wainwright, a Southern-fried sadist who has installed himself more or less as a monarch in a gone-to-seed mining town, Jeff Fahey squeezes the juice out of every florid pronouncement, every purring bit of snark or condescension, and gives every indication that he is having the time of his life. The sheer delight he takes in expressing nastiness is highly contagious, especially when Wainwright goads Breecher into what he promises will be “a good old-fashioned, dime-novel showdown.”
Wes Studi and Amanda Wyss also figure into the mix as Breecher’s not-entirely-friendly rival in the manhunting business and a saloon proprietor eager to free herself from Wainwright’s control. Their contributions are more like flavorsome enhancements than essential elements, but they are no less welcome for being so. “Badland” makes an engaging impression as the sum total of such disparate bits and pieces.