There’s something incontestably impressive about the no-frills efficiency of “Last Rampage: The Escape of Gary Tison,” a sturdily constructed and scrupulously well-cast slice of meat-and-potatoes filmmaking that calls to mind above-average made-for-cable movies of the 1990s. Based on the 1988 book of the same name by James W. Clarke, this engrossing true-crime drama is potently propelled by Robert Patrick’s full-tilt performance as Gary Tison, a purposefully ingratiating sociopath who reveals his true monstrousness to his naïve sons only after they help him escape from Arizona State Prison, and enhanced by solid contributions from supporting players Bruce Davison, Heather Graham and, briefly, the late John Heard. Director Dwight Little (“Free Willy,” “Rapid Fire”), another seasoned pro, seals the deal by keeping the narrative brisk and suspenseful, even while he covers familiar territory.
After starting out with a miscalculated flashforward that gives the game away a tad too early, Little smoothly doubles back to July 30, 1978, to show moody twentysomething Donnie Tyson (Alex MacNicoll) and his impressionable younger siblings, Ricky (Skyy Moore) and Ray (Casey Thomas Brown), all-too-easily smuggling guns into the Arizona prison on visitors’ day to free their beloved dad, who’s serving a life sentence for killing a prison guard, and Randy (Chris Browning), Gary’s unstable fellow inmate.
Over a period of several years, the brothers have been browbeaten by their self-deluded mother, Dorothy (Graham), and charmed by their incarcerated father, to the point of sincerely believing Gary is an unfortunate, and innocent, victim of circumstance. (“Sometimes, good men listen to bad ones,” Dorothy defiantly insists during a police interrogation.) But the longer they’re on the run, the clearer it is to Donnie that, while Randy is scarily unpredictable, Gary is something even more dangerous: a stone-cold killer who thinks nothing of gunning down men, women and infants whenever they need a new vehicle as they make toward a safe haven in Mexico.
Meanwhile, Cooper (Davison), a grizzled lawman with a personal grudge against Gary, ramrods a manhunt that takes him from the office of a lax and defensive prison warden (Heard, splendidly vivid in a one-scene cameo) to edgy encounters with a novice reporter (Molly C. Quinn) who’s slow to recognize that Dorothy may be as manipulative as her husband. There are moments when Davison seems to be offering a variation of Jeff Bridges’ trademark cynical galoots, a strategy that suits the movie just fine.
Patrick strikes a shrewd balance of thunderous rage and soft-spoken authority while intensely portraying Gary as a perversely righteous paterfamilias who demands unquestioning fealty from his sons, and relies on death threats when blood ties are no longer sufficient. Gary’s what-the-hell, matter-of-fact approach to bloodletting makes his violent behavior all the more jolting — and definitely more unsettling than Randy’s eager sadism — and Patrick fearlessly refuses to seek even a smidgen of sympathy for his character. He squeezes every last drop of juice from the screenplay by Alvaro Rodriguez and Jason Rosenblatt — which, not incidentally, gives him almost all of the best lines. (During the prison break, Gary warns a prison employee: “I won’t hesitate to paint the walls the color God gave you.”)
Effectively decked out in large, period-perfect eyeglasses, Graham plays Dorothy as a zealously supportive wife and mother whose willful blindness is a source of strength. She’s inconsolably devastated when her eyes are opened. Unfortunately, but perhaps inevitably, they don’t stay open for very long.
Incidentally: The events depicted in “Last Rampage: The Escape of Gary Tison” previously inspired a well-received 1983 TV-movie, “A Killer in the Family,” which starred Robert Mitchum as Gary Tison, and James Spader, Lance Kerwin and Eric Stoltz as his sons.