The Mild Bunch

Wherein the fine novel The Hi-Lo Country is transformed into a so-so movie

What's fatal is his covert moralism. He pulls back from his characters' ferocious appetites. For example, in one of the book's reckless high points, Big Boy unintentionally kills Jim Ed's weak-hearted money man with a sadistic, exorbitant poker bet. In the film Frears directs the scene for ominous foreboding, not black comedy; he won't let us savor the sardonic pleasure Big Boy takes in this homicidal stroke of luck. Peckinpah had a genius for catching you up in the mixed virtues and passions of his characters and then forcing you to face the outcome. In this picture Frears tips his hand--something he never did in dynamic work such as My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), Dangerous Liaisons (1988), The Grifters (1990), and the underrated Mary Reilly (1996).

We can't be sure who'll pull the trigger, but we know that Big Boy will be shot. The way Frears and Green have winnowed down the subplots, the climactic twist comes as no surprise. And the actors don't have the wiggle room to hit on revelations of their own. Harrelson at least lives up to the role of an irresistible life force; he energizes the film with his unsettling point-counterpoint of physical menace and skewed humor. But Crudup, so charismatic in Robert Towne's neglected Without Limits, turns into a mope; he's only wonderful here when the whole sorry mess is behind him. Elliott looks promising as Jim Ed Love but gets stranded in a single slimy smile. It's as if he's posing for a rogues' gallery.

Lee Marvin once told Evans that he didn't understand why Peckinpah kept buying the rights to The Hi-Lo Country when he'd already stolen the novel for an hourlong TV road comedy called The Losers. When Evans countered that all Peckinpah had filched was a farcical coon hunt, Marvin replied, "That's the best part of the book." The coon hunt doesn't make it into the film. This movie is wrongheadedly severe. When Pete sums it up and says he'll always remember the good times, you can't remember any.

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