After a series of vicious crimes by a renegade group of cowboys, led by "Red Jack" Stilwell, a legendary tracker, Noble Adams is pulled out of retirement to capture Stilwell, dead or alive....
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After a series of vicious crimes by a renegade group of cowboys, led by "Red Jack" Stilwell, a legendary tracker, Noble Adams is pulled out of retirement to capture Stilwell, dead or alive. Reluctantly, needing more men, he allows his son, Tom to tag along, revealing to Tom a whole brutal side of ruthlessness Noble thought he left behind. Written by
The Western never quite seems to die, despite repeated pronouncements to that effect. Westerns are not cool, although their heroes can certainly be. But so what? Cool is far too transient to be taken seriously by anyone but marketers and adolescents. For the latter, knowing what's cool is merely practice for knowing something but without the burden of actual knowledge. It's a place to be for people who, in essence, know almost nothing and need something to grip. So, instead of dying, the Western seems merely to periodically cop some Z's than awaken again to take a currently acceptable shape. Witness HBO's critically well-received new series, Deadwood. What's the secret here? I think it's simple. The Western is simply too innately and indelibly cinematic to completely die. Also, if one has a knack for location shooting, westerns can be relatively easy to make - at least as easy as any feature film can be, although they can be hard to make well. For example, Lawrence Kasdan's Silverado, despite its excellent cast, top-shelf production values, and sprinkling of good moments, never quite managed to escape a certain perfunctoriness. Compare it to a similar ensemble work in the genre: Clint Eastwood's superb Unforgiven, and you can begin to get the almost indefinable sense of what makes a Western right. The Western requires a certain element of restraint to really work; restraint on all levels, behind and in front of the camera. The made-for-TV, The Tracker, also screened as Dead or Alive, is a blueprint for that restraint.
The Tracker is a simple manhunt story set in the canyon country of southern Utah. If you've ever spent time in the high country, especially when autumn is drawing its final breaths, with the first major snowfall just a hair-trigger pull away, you'll know how beautiful that time of the season is. A buttery light seems to glow out from everywhere: rocks, dust, the explosion of golden Cottonwood leaves. Into this beautiful and unforgiving world Kris Kristofferson's almost supernaturally tough Marshal Noble Adams pursues his quarry. And what a great quarry it is. The under-sung Scott Wilson plays Jack Stillwell, a bible-quoting maniac, kidnapper, and murderer; a cross between Donald Pleasance's vicious lay preacher in Will Penny and the Wild Bill character in The Green Mile. Stillwell is on the loose, out of his gourd, and loving every minute of his headlong ride to perdition. Marshal Adams, his longtime friend and deputy (the ursine David Huddleston), and Adams's son, on leave from school `in the East', whom the Marshal deputizes to give him some real work to do, set out in pursuit of Stillwell, and they're not coming back without him.
The story swings between Jack Stillwell's fever-pitch lunacy and Marshal Adams' granitic resolve. Kris Kristofferson was born to be a western lead; always displaying the entire palette of mood required for the work. His Billy the Kid is, essentially, definitive although I remain very fond of Emilio Estevez' wild-eyed embodiment in Young Guns. Despite the relatively unknown status of this film, Kristofferson's Noble Adams is one of the finest western characters ever portayed: American Gothic from the Dark Side in service of The Light and is also some of this actor's best work ever. Trailing Stillwell into country where, as a younger man, Adams lost his wife, whom it is clear that he dearly loved, pulls the the Marshal across hallowed ground to boot. Tragi-comic relief occurs in the form of grim humor when a pack of bounty hunters, knockabout cowpokes also tracking Stillwell and completely out of their collective depth, cross Adams's trail. They get one warning to drop their act which, of course, they ignore in a manner entirely consistent with a group intelligence just a notch or two above the pathetics who rode with Robert Ryan's Deke Thornton in the Wild Bunch.
Adams' weapon of choice is a long-barreled Sharps. The Marshal shoots well and the outcome is somewhat foregone, yet one still emerges with a certain compassion for the dull-witted.
And there you have it. And it's all you need. As a film, The Tracker is a very solid B movie; a perfectly good place for a western to be. But as a genre piece, once the action departs the somewhat too-manicured 1880's railhead set, it's right down the pipe: compact, credible, nonsense-free, poignant, and engrossing. Any fan of the genre should collect it.
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