Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear — specifically, the mid-1950s to the late ’60s — when Paramount and Warner Bros. relied on producers such as A.C. Lyles and Hal Wallis, and directors like Henry Hathaway, Gordon Douglas, and Burt Kennedy, to maintain a steady flow of workmanlike Westerns for consumption by diehard horse opera fans at theaters and drive-ins everywhere. That’s the invitation extended by writer-director-star Scott Martin’s “Big Kill,” one of the precious few Westerns of recent years that one can easily imagine as a decades-ago vehicle for John Wayne, Dean Martin, James Stewart, and their contemporaries with only minor tweaking of the script (and some discreet removal of vulgar language, sexual references, and other naughty bits).
Yes, it clocks in at a leisurely 127 minutes, but that makes it only four minutes longer than John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962) — just one of the obvious influences on Martin’s scenario about an upright tenderfoot who learns hard lessons about rough justice in the Wild West. Jim Andrews (Christoph Sanders of TV’s “Last Man Standing” and “Ghost Whisperer”), a widowed Philadelphia accountant, is a young man who goes west to reunite with his brother, whom he has reason to believe is owner of a popular saloon in the booming mining town of Big Kill, Arizona. While en route, he providentially befriends two roguish gamblers who seem better suited to drawing guns than dealing cards: Jake Logan (Martin), perhaps the unluckiest lucky cardsharp this side of Wild Bill Hickok, and Travis Parker (Clint Hummel), a compulsive horndog with a near-preternatural knack for finding willing women everywhere. (Logan notes crudely, but not inaccurately: “He could fall into a barrel of dicks, and come up with a tit in his mouth.”)
Logan and Parker come along for the ride to Big Kill, where Andrews discovers, much to his distress, that (a) the booming town is bust after the closing of the mine, (b) his brother no longer owns the saloon, and nobody in Big Kill is eager to acknowledge his existence, and (c) law and order in the area is brutally enforced by the Preacher (Jason Patric), a soft-spoken, quick-shooting man in black who administers last rites to lawbreakers after gunning them down, and abides by a simple motto: “One should administer justice and offer salvation as well.”
Patric wisely stops far short of overplaying his character’s sociopathy, so that his Preacher provides sufficient menace to pose a deadly serious threat throughout “Big Kill.” In a similar fashion, Lou Diamond Phillips plays against expectations raised by his introductory scenes as the Preacher’s chief enforcer, Johnny Kane, who looks genuinely miffed when Logan and Parker claim that, sorry, they’ve never heard of him. (They’re lying, of course.) With his gaudy attire and cocky attitude, Kane initially appears designed as comic relief. But no: Not unlike George Kennedy’s stuttering gunfighter in “The Sons of Katie Elder,” Phillips’ gleeful killer turns out to be a deadly serious antagonist.
Don’t misunderstand: “Big Kill” is hardly a fun-free zone. Martin and Hummel develop a dryly witty give-and-take as Logan and Parker periodically comment on their present circumstances and discuss future prospects for survival. And there are laughs to be savored during an extended pre-credits sequence that echoes “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” as Logan and Parker flee Mexican soldiers led by a general (a comically blustering Danny Trejo) whose daughter Parker has defiled.
On the other hand, “Big Kill” never tilts toward meta self-awareness or wink-wink homage. Indeed, the movie as whole takes its cue from the engaging sincerity of Andrews’ portrayal of Jim Andrews as decent fellow who reluctantly accepts the notion, like so many protagonists in so many other Westerns, that, when push comes to shove, a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.
Kays Al-Atrakchi’s exceptionally effective musical score evokes both ’50s oaters and ’60s Spaghetti Westerns. It’s a nifty, knowing enhancement for a film made by people who respect its genre too much to be condescendingly clever, but embrace it so heartily that they want you to know that, yes, they’ve seen the same movies you have, and enjoy them just as much as you do.