As Hollywood has more or less given up on conventional westerns as mass-audience magnets, diehard fans of the genre have come to rely on a steady stream — or, at the very least, a consistent trickle — of small-budget, independently produced oaters to satisfy their appetite for old-fashioned sagebrush sagas. “Hickok,” the latest example of its unabashedly retrograde subgenre (the shoot-’em-up variety), contains a few elements — earthy language, fleeting nudity — that might trouble those purists who still pine for westerns of a more innocent era. But less censorious aficionados likely will be willing to look past the rough edges and enjoy the simple pleasures provided by a respectfully sincere retelling of a familiar legend.
At the center of this particular story is James Butler Hickok, a.k.a. Wild Bill Hickok, the Old West icon who inspired numerous legends — and, later, countless movies and TV dramas — with his exploits as a lawman, gambler and freelance gunslinger before meeting his untimely end during an 1876 poker game in the Dakota Territory town of Deadwood. Michael Lanahan’s serviceable screenplay for “Hickok” is (loosely) based on historical events: Hickok really was marshal of Abilene, Kansas, for a period beginning in 1871. During his tenure, fellow living legend John Wesley Hardin actually did drop by for a while. And yes, a corrupt saloon owner did try to have Hickok killed before Hickok sent the varmint off to Boot Hill.
But neither Lanahan nor director Timothy Woodward Jr. (“Traded”) permits facts to get in the way of their leisurely spinning of a diverting story. Come to think of it, they don’t let earlier versions of that story affect them, either. As the title character, Luke Hemsworth (brother of fellow Aussie-born actors Chris and Liam) eschews the long hair and fancy mustache that adorned the real Hickok — and that have since been adopted by most recent TV and movie Hickoks (David Carradine, Jeff Bridges, Sam Elliott, et alia). Instead, he makes do with a neatly trimmed beard, along with an appropriately steely-eyed gaze and gravelly voice, all of which enable him to inhabit the role persuasively. It also helps that Hemsworth doesn’t sound like he’s indulging in empty bluster when he warns someone at the wrong end of his gun: “I need hardly remind you that I never miss.”
Country music star Trace Adkins has established a second career as a reliable supporting player in indie westerns (and, in the case of last year’s “Stagecoach: The Texas Jack Story,” star). Here, he adds one more notch to his six-shooter with his authoritative performance as Phil Poe, the saloon owner who wants to turn Hardin (capably played by Kaiwi Lyman) against Hickok. Equally welcome are two other co-stars with multiple westerns on their résumés: Kris Kristofferson, effortlessly exuding gravitas as the mayor who hires Hickok as lawman, and, briefly, Bruce Dern as a curmudgeonly doctor who has a thriving practice in Abilene, where, as he cheerfully explains, “Guns are good for business.”
Cameron Richardson ably provides romantic interest as Mattie Lyles, a woman who shares a past with Hickok and, maybe, a future with Poe. Mattie, by the way, has a precocious young son (Hunter Fischer), and a late revelation about the identity of the boy’s father is the least surprising twist in the entire movie.