An unconvincing Wild Bill
Not that I blame it for being historical hooey: most Western movies are that, and if they want to have John Wesley Hardin as Wild Bill Hickok’s deputy in Abilene, well, let them. No, it’s not the rather absurd plot. It’s the bad acting and (especially) writing that is to blame. The script (Michael Lanahan) is ponderous to a degree and verging on the juvenile. The direction (Timothy Woodward Jr, who also directed the Adkins/Kristofferson Western Traded in 2016) is leaden.
We start in the Civil War with Hickok being brave. He is played by Luke Hemsworth (he was in eight episodes of Westworld). Mr Hemsworth eschews the Hickokian flowing locks and pancake hat we are used to in favor of a more sober outfit and cropped hair. But he carries his two pistols butt-forward, so that’s something. To be fair to the star, he does wear the clothes quite well. All the other actors are very obviously wearing costumes.
Wild Bill, 2017 version
Wild Bill, 1871 version
The Civil War is only an intro, though. Most of the action takes place in Abilene seven years later. This Hickok is a petty criminal and chancer who is offered the job of marshal by Mayor Kris Kristofferson, showing his age, I fear, and seemingly on auto-pilot reciting (or reading) his lines. The Texas cowpokes are coming, you see, and they need a nifty gunman to clean up the town.
Phil Coe, owner of The Bull’s Head Saloon, has become Phil Poe for some odd reason, and is played by country singer Trace Adkins, who has now done five Westerns, including taking the title role in the weakest of all the versions of The Virginian in 2014. He is the bad guy, as saloon owners are supposed to be, though sadly he has no sneaky derringer, as would have been fitting. The writer invents a past love affair between Poe’s current live-in fiancée Mattie (Cameron Richardson) and Wild Bill, which does not please Poe one bit, especially as it becomes clear that she still loves Bill.
Poe does not treat her well
She has a young son, Joey (Hunter Fischer), whom Bill is nice to in the first reel (if these movies have reels these days), a sure sign, as any Westernista will know, of goodiness. If a fellow is nice to an animal or a child in the first ten minutes then he’s a goody. Similarly, Poe beats both Mattie and the boy, so is clearly a skunk.
Hardin (Kaiwi Lyman, the latest in a very long line of actors to portray the Texas serial killer) is a bearded lightning-fast gunslinger who outshoots Wild Bill in a contest in the saloon. He and Hickok fence a bit and in the end Bill gives Hardin an ultimatum: pin on the deputy’s badge or be carried out feet first. Wes takes the badge. It’s Hickok who does the border roll, not Hardin, appearing to offer up his guns handle first, then flipping them over and aiming them at his opponent’s head.
Hickok does his rounds with deputy JW Hardin
Hickok already has eye trouble and the doc tells him he’ll be blind in five years. Happily, the doctor is Bruce Dern, miscast as a goody (though he does drink, so not saintly). How I like Mr Dern in Westerns, still going strong (thanks to Quentin Tarantino) after all these years.
Poe offers $500 to the man who kills Hickok and many are the scoundrelly gunmen who try, though none succeeds, particularly when John Wesley Hardin comes to his boss’s aid. It’s all rather implausible, I fear.
At the end Bill is not fired by the town but rides of into the darkness because he can’t see any more.
Well, it’s Wild Bill, so I suppose you could watch it. Buit in all honesty…