When the first “Lonesome Dove” struck ratings gold in 1989, CBS joked about multiple spinoffs, including a Saturday-morning show titled “Lonesome Dove Babies.” Almost two decades later, such absurdity has nearly come to pass with this tedious, at times cartoonishly bad prequel featuring Steve Zahn and Karl Urban as Gus and Call, the intrepid Texas Rangers first immortalized by Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones, respectively. CBS was ready to kiss off this project around New Year’s before the writers strike made scripted programming precious, but “Comanche Moon” only proves that a script is a terrible thing to waste.
As prequels go, this is basically “Lonesome Dove: The Middle Years.” Adapting his book, Larry McMurtry and partner Diana Ossana (reuniting with “Dove” director Simon Wincer) serve up an oddly structured pile of hash that essentially ends after night two before returning, awkwardly, seven years later. Having not read the book, I can only guess at the plot, which seems wholly irrelevant to the more pressing task of allowing the cast to colorfully chew up chunks of scenery.
After a bloody prologue in which Texans murder Comanche leaders, the action flashes forward to the late 1850s. Gus and Call are on patrol with their eccentric captain Inish Scull (Val Kilmer in Mark Twain makeup), who abandons the hunt for the Comanche they are pursuing, Buffalo Hump (Wes Studi), after somebody steals his horse. That leaves Gus and Call in charge of the Rangers, while Scull encounters the Mexican bandit Ahumado (Sal Lopez).
Killing Native Americans, however, is just one of the challenges facing these hard-bitten Marlboro men, as Gus pines for his love Clara (Linda Cardellini) and Call wrestles with fear of commitment to Maggie (Elizabeth Banks), the whore with whom he’s fathered a child.
The Comanche soon go on the offensive, conducting raids and raping (and thus “ruining”) settler women. Meanwhile, the captain’s wife (Rachel Griffiths) capitalizes upon his absence to indulge her carnal appetites by seducing various Rangers.
Without putting too fine a point on it, the performances are pretty awful. Zahn is miscast, Urban (“The Lord of the Rings”) nearly nonverbal, while Kilmer and Griffiths are so over the top, they seem to be performing in a “Saturday Night Live” spoof. Ditto for the large Native-American cast, whose dialogue sounds inordinately stilted even in translation.
Like many of the story threads, night three proves almost entirely anticlimactic, picking up after the Civil War. Unfortunately, between the killer parrot and the go-nowhere plotting, more casual cowpokes may find themselves laughing in the wrong spots.
As a huge Western fan, I get no pleasure in saying that such a large-scale project has gone astray, which — if “Moon” quickly wanes — may discourage skittish programmers from returning to the frontier. But with critics, like cowboys, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.