Larry McMurtry’s sequel to his novel “Lonesome Dove” hits the vid screen in a five-hour drama — minus considerable teleblurb time — that shows a tone shift. The tale of Capt. Woodrow Call chasing a youthful train bandit (played coolly and distantly by Alexis Cruz), the outstanding direction by Joseph Sargent and the secondary stories may add up to a grittier, dustier meller than the sublime 1989 “Dove,” but it’s still mesmerizing TV.
Filmed in Lajitas, Texas, by de Passe Entertainment, Levinson Prods. and RHI Entertainment Inc. Executive producers, Robert Halmi Jr., Larry Levinson, Suzanne de Passe, Larry McMurtry, Diana Ossana; supervising producer, Larry Strichman; co-producer, Frank Q. Dobbs; director, Joseph Sargent; writers, McMurtry, Ossana; based on the novel by McMurtry; It’s the Southwest and Mexico in the 1880s. Ex-Texas Ranger Capt. Call (James Garner) is a bounty hunter hired by the railroad to nail blond, psychopathic loner Joey Garza (Cruz). Call takes along the railroad’s tenderfoot accountant, Brookshire (Charles Martin Smith, particularly effective), reliable Pea Eye Parker (Sam Shepard), Deputy Ted Plunkert (Tristan Tait) and Indian tracker Famous Shoes (Wes Studi).
Blood flows and wounds are ugly as “Laredo” makes its way to the ribbon-tied ending. Pea Eye’s schoolteacher wife, Lorena (Sissy Spacek), determined and unafraid, heads out after her husband when she hears he’s in danger; Joey’s mother, Maria (Sonia Braga), tries reasoning with her emotionless son, but he’s too busy shooting gringos from afar.
Script by McMurtry and Diana Ossana includes a second villain: the notorious loco killer Mox Mox (Kevin Conway, making a credible loony), who burns victims alive.
Other characters include Billy Williams (played persuasively by George Carlin), who’s courting Maria; Joey’s younger, blind sister, Teresa (Vanessa Martinez), whom he terrorizes; cynical slayer John Wesley Hardin (Randy Quaid, with little to do but sit around being nasty).
Judge Roy Bean (a bearded Ned Beatty in a good, unromantic look at the legend), sits on the porch of his Jersey Lily saloon, picking up cash for booze. (Fiction skids away from reality when Bean meets a grim death indeed; actually he died peaceably in bed with two sons, a doctor and two cronies in attendance.)
The plot weaves among the strong characters in good ol’ storytelling fashion. Danger crops up, from rattlers to madmen; heroism’s a need; death is a recognized presence.
Murder, rape, suicide, birth, torture, an amputation, near-drowning, horse killings, a naked corpse are all part of the package — no wry humor in this outing.
The finale sticks close to what life is all about; it may be a letdown, but theriveting story’s been everywhere else before. It’s time to close down ’cause the choo-choo’s coming.
Garner creates his own take on the tough outsider Call (originally, it was Tommy Lee Jones; Jon Voight limned the role in 1993’s “Return to Lonesome Dove,” and Lee Majors was Call in the first episode of last year’s syndie “Dove” series). Garner’s Call is relenting and mellowing — elegant word for aging — and entertains self-doubts.
Braga’s Maria, alternating between tenderness and fury as Joey’s powerful, confused mother, commands her scenes. Spacek’s interp of the experienced Lorena is a rich concept of the pioneer woman with a past. At one point, out in the desert alone with a wounded Call, she lets fly a few revelations; it’s the high point of the production.
Cruz’s cold-eyed Joey, with his long, ashen hair and insolent style, holds attention. Studi’s level-headed Famous Shoes is a plus; Shepard adds to the piece as soft-spoken, tamed Pea Eye (played in “Dove” by Tim Scott).
Director Sargent works purposeful setups to reveal insights, tightcloseups to discover facets of a character, long shots of the barren land to show how rough life is.
Production designer Jerry Wanek has established the worn-out feel of the land with his villages and location sites along the Rio Grande; he faithfully captures the period and its sense of loneliness and loss as the West gives way to law and railroads. Wanek has cunningly recreated an era that may not have been, and he gives it substance.
Edward Pei’s photography is lovely; his composition, use of muted colors, sweeping shots of the lonely valleys and rock lands and his sense of historical perspective all contribute to the production’s strengths. Thanks to Debra Karen’s editing, the drama, buoyed by David Shire’s near-sweeping score, keeps up its beckoning pace.