Steve Miner’s Texas Rangers is a troubled project. The film was conceived, I believe, sometime in 2000, with teenage heartthrob of the moment James Van Der Beek (TV’s “Dawson’s Creek”) attached to star. Now, 2 years later, the film is finally seeing a release — only not in the theaters as originally intended, but directly to video. You can look at this in three ways: one, the movie was so bad that the producers didn’t think it was worth their time and money to release it in theaters; or second, Van Der Beek’s popularity had waned and the movie wouldn’t survive with him attached as star; or third (and what I believe to be the case), Texas Rangers is a western, and without a big name attached to it (i.e. Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven) the movie is D.O.A. at the box office.
Texas Rangers tells the tale of the 1875 Texas Rangers in (where else?) Texas, where Leander McNelly (Dylan McDermott), a legendary ex-Confederate commander and former Texas Ranger, is recalled to duty. McNelly assembles a band of rag-tag youngsters to bring law and order back to the Texas prairie, including Lincoln Dunnison (James Van Der Beek), a Philadelphia preppy who saw his entire family gunned down by outlaw King Fisher (Alfred Molina). Also joining Dunnison is goofball George Durham (Ashton Kutcher) and sharpshooter Randolph Scipio (Raymond Usher). On the trail of Fisher, McNelly has to deal with his own personal demons, while his young charges try to adjust to life as lawmen and at the same time, killers…
Texas Rangers is not for everyone. I have a weak spot for westerns, and I can generally find something to like about even the worst westerns ever made. That’s just me — I like westerns, so sue me. So perhaps I’m somewhat biased when I say Texas Rangers isn’t all that bad; it’s actually pretty good if you like action-packed films and would rather leave the philosophizing about killing and law and righteousness to Eastwood’s Unforgiven and other more “serious” westerns.
Texas Rangers isn’t concern with showing a revised view of the west — it is pretty much a standard western in every respects, where the good guys are obvious and the bad guys are bad and everyone is a quick draw artist. In this way, the film doesn’t break any new grounds, and its questions about morality and righteousness (when it does try to address them) are quickly brushed under the rug in favor of smoke-filled shootouts. And oh my there are a lot of gunfire and shootouts.
The acting in Texas Rangers is actually quite good. I’ve never been a fan of Van Der Beek (I’ve never sat down to watch a full episode of his TV show), and I bemoan the status of “teen heartthrobs” who haven’t proven themselves as actors. Regardless, Texas Rangers’ three “heartthrobs” Kutcher, Van Der Beek, and Usher do credible jobs in their roles. Kutcher is especially likeable as the happy-go-lucky Durham, who has a fast gun but can’t hit the broad side of a barn. Van Der Beek is also good as Dunnison, the eastern sophisticate turned gunfighter who becomes McNelly’s confidant. Usher has the movie’s best lines as the brash and determined Scipio. Usher’s laments about blacks being forced to take scout positions is funny, since the scouts are the first ones to get killed, and the scouts are almost always black.
At 80 minutes, Texas Rangers is incredibly short, and it’s not hard to imagine the heavy editing that went into this final product. I can also imagine the film as being somewhere around two hours before it was heavily chopped up for pacing and to cater to the “action” crowd. The movie glosses over a possible love triangle between Dunnison, Durham, and Rachael Leigh Cook, who is barely in the movie.
The movie also decides to concentrate on action instead of characterization, and as a result we only get a surface look at all of our characters, including McNelly. Some characters must have had bigger roles in the film’s previous cuts, only to have their roles substantially reduced, so much so that when they appear and are killed off, we wonder who they were in the first place. I also would have liked to know more about McNelly’s past as a Confederate soldier who “can’t be killed” and his relationship with his two right-hand men, Frank Bones (Randy Travis) and Armstrong (Robert Patrick.)
As it stands, Texas Rangers is a short and fun film for western fans. It would be interesting to see what a longer cut of the film looks like, but this 80-minute version isn’t bad if you like gunsmoke and more gunsmoke. I happen to like gunsmoke, so there you have it.
Steve Miner (director)
CAST: Rachael Leigh Cook …. Caroline Dukes
Ashton Kutcher …. George Durham
Dylan McDermott …. Leander McNelly
Robert Patrick …. Sgt. Armstrong
Usher Raymond …. Randolph Douglas Scipio
James Van Der Beek …. Lincoln Rogers Dunnison
Leonor Varela …. Perdita
Alfred Molina …. John King Fisher