Larger-than-life eight-hour 1989 miniseries oater didn’t really demand a sequel, but showbiz economics did. Hence, just in time for fall sweeps comes “Return to Lonesome Dove.” Show, spread over three nights, is worth watching in its own right: While John Wilder’s script perhaps loses a bit of the mythic quality of the original, under Mike Robe’s direction, “Return” is as fast-moving as a seven-hour film can be.
Present series begins where earlier adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1985 novel left off, shortly after death of Gus McCrae (Robert Duvall in the original). Having buried McCrae in Texas, Woodrow Call is heading back to his Montana ranch.
Role of steely ex-Texas Ranger Call, played in original by Tommy Lee Jones, has been reassigned to Jon Voight (who resembles Kenny Rogers as “Return” begins , and Willie Nelson as trail takes its toll).
Call picks up old pals Isom Pickett and Gideon Walker (Will Gossett Jr. and William Petersen) to guide a drive of wild mustangs north, then heads to Nebraska to buy “some of those high-strung racers they’re breeding down in Kentucky” from Clara Allen, an old flame of McCrae’s. This character, too, is holdover from original, Anjelica Huston’s part now played by Barbara Hershey.
Rick Schroder repeats his role from the original, Newt Dobbs, who — he thinks — may be Call’s son. Though the story takes place immediately after the original, Newt has aged a few years. You grow up fast out West.
Other original characters revived for this sequel include cowboy July Johnson (Chris Cooper), who’s a-lustin’ for Miss Allen; and ranch hands Pea-Eye Parker (Tim Scott), Lippy (William Sanderson), Needle Nelson (David Carpenter) and Jasper Fant (Barry Tubb, excellent as a sycophantic, back-stabbing cowhand who leads Newt astray).
Most interesting characters are those created by scripter John Wilder for this version: Pickett and Walker, bad-ass outlaw Cherokee Jack Jackson (Dennis Haysbert), cattle rancher Gregor Dunnegan (Oliver Reed), and McCrae’s illegitimate and previously unknown daughter, Agostina Vega (Nia Peeples).
As Walker, Pickett, Vega and their families head to Montana with the mustangs and Call visits Allen and Johnson in Nebraska, confused youth Newt is taken under the influence of Dunnegan– who thinks of him as the Son He Never Had — and Dunnegan’s young wife (Reese Witherspoon) who sees him as something of a Ken doll, to be dressed up and fussed with. Dunnegan sees what’s going on between the young folks but evidently doesn’t care.
In the meantime, Cherokee Jack manages to meet up with Call and the herd on the trail, winding up in Montana his own bad self. Also, there’s trouble a-brewin’ between the cattlemen headed by Dunnegan, and homesteaders, personified by Call.
Conflicts and plot elements aren’t anything that haven’t been seen since Westerns (or literature itself) began, but Wilder keeps everything moving smoothly, adds a bit of dry wit and includes more people of color and family units than usual in Westerns. Nice elements include having Peeples’ character teaching Mexican kids English on the trail drive, as Anglo kids pick up Spanish from their new Mexican friends.
Acting is top-notch, particularly in secondary and tertiary roles, and director Robe (taking over from original’s Simon Wincer) tells the story with minimal visual gimmickry. Editing, by Benjamin A. Weissman and Corky Ehlers, is impressive, and d.p. Kees Van Oostrum gets a good look out of generally colorless landscape and Patricia Norris’s drab-but-authentic costumes.
Tendency to pad with endless scenic vistas is avoided, resulting in a surprisingly taut script, and the biggest set piece is a dramatic fire ending the fourthhour. Otherwise, the story sticks to the characters.
While tale is pretty much self-contained, for benefit of those who haven’t seen original, storylines are left sufficiently unresolved to allow for a second sequel. To confuse matters, original author McMurtry (who gets no official credit for this script or story) is readying his own “Lonesome Dove” follow-up, “Streets of Laredo.”