Friday, December 19, 2008


Everybody mistakes a fumble-fingered, song-warbling, saddle tramp for a dastardly desperado in director Stuart Heisler’s satirical horse opera “Along Came Jones” (*** out of ****), toplining “Virginian” star Gary Cooper as the eponymous protagonist, Loretta Young as his sharp-shooting love interest, and Dan Duryea as the notorious bandit. “Jesse James” scenarist Nunnally Johnson derived this splendid send-up of sagebrushers from “The Searchers” author Alan Le May’s novel, and “Along Came Jones” represents Cooper’s first and only independent production. This easy-going, sentimental oater features several low-key but heartfelt performances, especially from Cooper as the incompetent cowpoke who couldn’t hit the side of a barn with his six-shooter even if he threw it at it. William Demarest plays his comical sidekick who has more sense than the hero. Dan Duryea is appropriately malicious as the real Monty.

The production values of this modest Independent Pictures production reflect the restrictions imposed by the U.S. Government on Hollywood during World War II. No movie could boast more than $5-thousand dollars worth of new production materials. Consequently, everything appears just as plain and generic as you can imagine. Nobody has more than a couple of costume changes, and the performers often act in front of back projected landscapes when they hit the trail. This is one of those westerns where you never see a train, the U.S. Calvary, a nation of war whooping Native Americans, or scenic Monument Valley landscapes. In other words, white Anglo-Saxon American Protestants swap bullets with each other over the course of its unhurried 90 minutes, but nothing happens that you haven't seen before in any other western. Nevertheless, Cooper’s amiable performance and Heisler’s restrained helming make “Along Came Jones” a pleasure to watch. Remember, "Along Came Jones" came along before the Bob Hope western comedies "The Paleface" (1958) and "Son of Paleface" (1952), but both "Paleface" farces surpassed "Along Came Jones." Interesting, “Along Came Jones” anticipated John Ford’s last great western “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962). Loretta Young does for Cooper in “Along Came Jones” what John Wayne did for James Stewart in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”

“Along Came Jones” opens with a one-of-its-kind stagecoach hold-up. Monty Jarrad (Dan Duryea of “Ball of Fire”) lays in ambush with his Winchester rifle as a six-horse stagecoach trundles along a remote river road and shoots the coach tongue that holds the horses in harness. The coachman loses control of the vehicle and its rear wheel smashes into the rocks on the side of the trail. Monty wounds the guard, armed with a Winchester instead of a shotgun, and the guy plunges off the swiftly moving vehicle and falls into a tree. The Wells Fargo coach careens to a halt into the side of the mountain, and Monty rides up to it, snatches the money bag from the driver, Ira Waggoner (Walter Sand of "To Have & Have Not"), and hightails it off down the trail. The guard recovers sufficiently enough to wound the fleeing outlaw and Monty incriminates himself when he drops his rifle on the trail. In a close-up, we can see his name etched onto the long gun: Monty Jarrad. The next shot shows a lawman posting a $1-thousand dollar reward dodger for Jarrad.

Song warbling Melody Jones (Gary Cooper of “Sergeant York”) and his sidekick George Fury (William Demarest of “All Through the Night”) are riding along when they spot the town of Payneville in the distance (bogus looking back projection again) and Melody realizes that they took a wrong turn at the fork in the road some 400 to 500 miles back. George shakes his head. “Well, it don’t surprise me none, I can you tell you that a cowhand that goes in for breaking horses by the times he’s your size, he’s been hit in the seat of the pants so many times he ain’t got any brains anymore—just a kind of yellow oatmeal in his head.” Our heroes mosey into Payneville and the First Chance Saloon barkeeper notices the initials MJ on Melody’s chaps and assumes Melody is Monty Jarrad. Melody spots pretty looking Cherry de Longpre (Loretta Young of “Ladies Courageous”) prancing down the boardwalk. He follows her while George enters a saloon. George doesn’t understand why everybody refers to him as Uncle Roscoe. According to the wanted poster, Monty rides with a fellow called Uncle Roscoe. Meanwhile, Melody eavesdrops on Ira who observes how “very nice” Cherry walks, and Melody slugs him so hard that Ira wallows in the dust. Before Ira can pull his six-gun, another citizen points to the chaps on Melody’s horse with the initials MJ. Everybody thinks Melody is actually Monty. Melody has never commanded such respect from anybody. All the time this is happening, Melody has no clue why the citizenry are treating him with such latitude. George is infuriated his reception in the saloon. He hates being called Uncle Roscoe, Monty’s sidekick. When he rejoins Melody, he complains about this rude treatment. Melody explains how to cast a big shadow. “You got to look like you’re somebody and act like you’re somebody, like you can take care of yourself no matter what happens, and then pretty soon you’re somebody.” George gives Melody a dubious look at this advice.

Eventually, Cherry saves Melody from getting ambushed in town and they ride out to her ranch. The real Monty Jarrad isn’t so sure about Cherry’s plan to make everybody believe that Melody is him. Nobody could be that stupid, he assures her, but he doesn't know Melody. Cherry explains that she has fixed Melody and George up so that the posse will be riding south after them while Monty can ride north. Melody smells a rat and doubles back to the ranch. In the course of events, Cherry changes her mind about Monty. She complains to her brother Avery that she liked Monty originally because he was "wild," but Monty has grown "mean" and she doesn't approve of his rancor. She turns on Monty and she helps Melody out of several tight scrapes. Cherry takes Melody to the shack where Monty has stashed the stolen loot but they find themselves up to their necks in one predicament after another. Director Stuart Heisler keeps the action moving along fast enough so that this hokum never stalls out. “Along Came Jones” turned out to be a genuine crowd pleaser when it came out in 1945. Everybody who made it seems like they were having a ball. Nunnally Johnson provides some memorable lines of dialogue and the final shoot-out is a hoot. There are enough twists and turns to make “Along Came Jones” more than just an ordinary western.


No, “Walking Tall: Lone Justice” (**1/2 out of ****) doesn’t resume where “Walking Tall: The Payback” ended. The major players in Dallas behind sleazy Howard Morris—Traxell Byrne (Jerry Cotton of “American Outlaws”) and his right-hand henchman, Lou Dowdy (Todd Terry of “The Anarchist Cookbook”)—got away scot-free. Neither were apprehended and held accountable for their perfidy. Whether this was a deliberate choice on the part of the filmmakers or a gaping hole is still debatable. Those two precipitated two of the most important events in “Walking Tall: The Payback.” In a sense, they served as plot puppeteers. They pulled strings and got the hero and the villain to dance to their tune. Instead, the “Lone Justice” in this genuine sequel refers to a ruthless Hispanic druglord, Octavio Perez (newcomer Rodrigo De la Rosa), who the Feds are prosecuting as a racketeer. Producer Andrew Stevens has a cameo as Octavio’s defense attorney. Tenacious FBI agent Kate Jenson (Yvette Nipar of “Vampire Klan”) and her rebellious daughter Samantha (Haley Ramm of “X-Men: The Last Stand”) return, and Nick is now Kate’s boyfriend much to Samantha’s chagrin. Nick’s mother, Emma Prescott (Gail Cronauer of “Boys Don’t Cry”) is also back in this follow-up. The story takes place initially in Dallas and then the characters retreat to Nick’s ranch in the sticks. When Nick isn’t battling the villains, Samantha and he bond, and she considers him more of a friend than an enemy. FBI Agent Marcia Tunney (Elizabeth Barondes of “The Forsaken”) emerges as the most interesting character.

“Walking Tall: Lone Justice” surpasses “Walking Tall: The Payback.” The Joe Halpin & Brian Strasmann screenplay is a hundred times better than their previous effort, but it isn’t without its flaws. Happily, “Walking Tall: Lone Justice” generated considerable suspense despite the cliches that clutter this familiar FBI versus the notorious drug felon narrative. This movie develops the theme of ‘teamwork.’ Furthermore, it features at least one example of judiciously placed foreshadowing. Pay attention to Nick and Samantha’s discussion about firearms in the barn. The villains pose a greater challenge to our heroes than the previous ones did and these villains are rather nefarious. They don’t mind amputating one FBI agents thumbs when she refuses to answer their questions. Our hero, Nick Prescott, finds himself in a tight situation or two. At one point, the villains have him tied up like Rambo was in “Rambo: First Blood, Part 2” when he was attached to mattress box springs and received jolts of electricity. Unfortunately, in spite of the superior script, director Trip Reed relies on annoying concertina zooms and frenetic jump cuts to not only intensify but also accelerate the action. The concertina zooms look jarring and the jump cuts that are designed to break up mundane actions are equally annoying. Neither of these cinematic devices adds anything to the story. On the other hand, they call attention to the lack of action.

The action unfolds with Nick driving to Dallas to see his girlfriend. Nick stops off at a convenience store to pick up fresh flowers for Kate and ice cream for dessert. This scene contains its share of humor and drama. While Nick searches for the appropriate flavor of ice cream, an African-American gangsta and his Hispanic sidekick try to rob the cashier. They demand that the cashier open the safe. Nick throws a can that knocks the poor cashier out cold and then he single-handedly thwarts the two robbers. The Hispanic robber tries to use marital arts moves on our hero and Nick routinely slings bags of potato chips at him before he takes him down. Although Nick kept the criminals from robbing the store, he winds up in jail for hitting the cashier with a can. Nevertheless, Kate comes down and gets him out of jail. Samantha, who doesn’t know Nick that well yet, sees him as a distraction for her mother who is too distracted by the demands of her job to pay her daughter the attention that her daughter deems suitable. Initially, tension mounts between Samantha and Nick.

Meanwhile, Kate is part of a prosecution case against Octavio. The Feds are protecting a witness against the druglord who can send him to jail for good. Unlike the R-rated “Walking Tall: The Payback” with its objectionable rape scene that showed no nudity, “Walking Tall: Lone Justice” forefronts a nude scene with a Hispanic honey stripping and displaying her abundant breasts so that she can catch the eye of the witness. While he stands at the window in plain view against the wishes of his protector, Perez’s henchmen relieve a bellboy of his duties and masquerade so they can get into the motel room and kill the witness. The Feds cannot prosecute Perez on a major charge, so they fall back to a money laundering charge and their witnesses are their own agents. Kate is one of them and she and her colleagues move to a safe house until they are to be called to testify. Somehow, the Perez gang learns about their whereabouts and wipes out everybody, killing Kate in the process, too. This is the first of a couple of genuine surprises that elevates “Walking Tall: Lone Justice” over its pathetic predecessor.
The Perez gang watches Kate’s funeral from a distance and they believe that their problems have been taken care of, but they are wrong, dead wrong.

Saying anything else about this better than average sequel would ruin its impact. Kevin Sorbo looks comfortable in his role as Nick. The scene in the hospital when a fellow FBI agent and he try to avoid Perez’s killers churns up considerable suspense. Nevertheless, the hole that plagues this tense scene is the absence of any hospital security guards. That Perez’s killers—disguised as EMTs—could smuggle automatic weapons into the hospital is too much to ask. The last scene at Nick’s ranch has problems, too. The convention in both “Walking Tall” movies is the heroes cannot play hardball the way that the villains can and remain heroic.