Sneaking into town without any advance screenings after nearly two years in the Dimension stockade, "Texas Rangers" has the frustrating feel of a rousing, epic oater sadly compromised. To be sure, what remains is sweeping in scope, serious in demeanor and for the most part duly respectful of the genre.

This review was corrected on December3, 2001

Sneaking into town without any advance screenings after nearly two years in the Dimension stockade, “Texas Rangers” has the frustrating feel of a rousing, epic oater sadly compromised. To be sure, what remains is sweeping in scope, serious in demeanor and for the most part duly respectful of the genre. Yet even as this rare foray into horse opera territory takes to heart the maxim of the late Western helmer Budd Boetticher — “A man has a job to do, or a couple of men. They try to do it against tremendous odds. They do it.” — “Texas Rangers” also plays like an abbreviateed, truncated version of what may have been envisioned in the original script by action vet John Milius and “Scream 3″ scribe Ehren Kruger. Look for “Texas Rangers” to gallop briskly through extremely limited theatrical release into the holiday sunset, where it awaits discovery by genre fans in ancillary.

In 1875 Texas, land baron Richard Dukes (Tom Skerritt) persuades consumptive widower Leander McNelly (Dylan McDermott) to form the legendary law enforcement agency of the title, with an eye towards thwarting the efforts of ruthless bandit John Fisher King (Alfred Molina) and his second-in-command Ed Simms (Vincent Spano). Specifically, King is engineering a series of raids on cattle ranchers, driving stolen herds to Mexico, where he has a deal with corrupt general Cortinas (Joe Renteria).

Assisted by officers Armstrong (Robert Patrick) and Bones (Randy Travis), McNelly auditions men from the regions and ends up with a band of 30 green recruits that includes recently orphaned, Philadelphia-bred city slicker Lincoln Rogers Dunnison (James Van Der Beek), enthusiastically goofy ambush survivor George Durham (Ashton Kutcher), confident former slave Scipio (Usher Raymond), Mexican horseman Jesus Sandoval (Marco Leonardi), painfully young Berry Smith (Jon Abrahams) and stuttering Suh Suh Sam (Matt Keeslar).

Things move quickly thereafter, as McNelly and his rapidly battle-hardened brood zig-zag along the Rio Grande in hot pursuit of King’s gang. When the outlaw targets Dukes’ ranch for assault and suckers the Rangers into a trap via plans “overheard” by treacherous hostage Perdita (Leonor Varela), a slaughter ensues. But McNelly rallies his forces to overrun King’s compound shortly before succumbing to his disease, leaving Dunnison in charge and Durham settling down with fetching Duke daughter Caroline (Rachael Leigh Cook).

Official script credit goes to team of Scott Busby and Martin Copeland (1992’s Kiwi-U.S. co-production “The Rainbow Warrior”), working from Durham’s 1962 memoir “Taming the Nueces Strip.” More tellingly, Dimension’s press kit refers to original “rich, suspenseful script” of Milius and Kruger, and pic has strong echoes of former’s career-long obsession with period detail, frontier justice and the men of honor who become so desperate for order, they take the law into their own hands.

Central conflict between topliners Van Der Beek and McDermott bears this out, as former’s idealism holds latter’s law-bending urges, for the most part, in check.

Large cast is uniformly fine with tongue-twisting, pulpy dialogue, though pic presents only brief flashes of what look to be fully realized characterizations jettisoned at some point during production or post (Cook has only a handful of lines, Joe Spano is gunned down shortly after the opening credits, and hirsute “Mummy” star Oded Fehr is around just long enough to be hanged). What’s left hints strongly at the thrills that might’ve come from a longer, more fleshed-out and balanced story.

Under capable helmer Steve Miner (“Halloween H20″), large crew went to a lot of trouble in three countries to re-create a visceral milieu reminiscent of “The Wild Bunch.”

Thus, tech credits are top shelf, supported by Daryn Okada’s facile widescreen photography on picturesque Canadian and Mexican locations, the rawboned production design of Herman Pinter and a strapping orchestral score by former Yes guitarist Trevor Rabin that atones for his compromised and heavy-handed work on Warners floppola “American Outlaws” — opposite which delayed oater was most recently set to bow last April.

The two films share one final commonality: “Texas Rangers” is also rated PG-13 for its inevitable yet discreet “Western violence,” however different that may be from, say, “Northeastern violence.”

Texas Rangers

Production

A Dimension Films release and presentation of a Price Entertainment/Greisman production, in association with Larry Levinson Prods. Produced by Alan Greisman, Frank Price. Executive producers, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Cary Granat, Levinson. Co-producers, David S. Cass Sr., Mary Church. Directed by Steve Miner. Screenplay, Scott Busby, Martin Copeland, based on the book "Taming the Nueces Strip: The Story of McNelly's Rangers," by George Durham.

Crew

Camera (color, Panavision widescreen), Daryn Okada; editors, Peter Devaney Flanagan, Gregg Featherman; music, Trevor Rabin; music supervisor, Ed Gerrard; production designer, Herbert Pinter; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), George Tarrant; supervising sound editor, Larry Kemp; associate producers, Douglas C. Metzger, Jessica Cunningham. Reviewed at Hoyt's Potomac Yard Cinema 16, Alexandria, Va., Nov. 30, 2001. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 90 MIN.

With

Lincoln Rogers Dunnison - James Van Der Beek
Leander McNelly - Dylan McDermott
Randolph Douglas Scipio - Usher Raymond
George Durham - Ashton Kutcher
John B. Armstrong - Robert Patrick
Caroline Dukes - Rachael Leigh Cook
Perdita - Leonor Varela
Frank Bones - Randy Travis
Berry Smith - Jon Abrahams
Suh Suh Sam - Matt Keeslar
Ed Simms - Vincent Spano
Jesus Sandoval - Marco Leonardi
Pete Marsele - Oded Fehr
Mr. Dunnison - Joe Spano
Richard Dukes - Tom Skerritt

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