Hard Ground—Burt Reynolds, Bruce Dern, Amy Jo Johnson, Seth Peterson (MfTV, 2003; Dir: Frank Q. Dobbs)
A variation on a frequently-used theme: two old-timers, a lawman and an outlaw, join forces to use their experience and old-time skills to deal with a gang of more modern (and nastier) bad guys. In this case, John “Chill” McKay (Burt Reynolds) is a former bounty hunter serving twenty years in the Arizona territorial prison in Yuma. He’s half-way through that term in 1901. He is released to the custody of his brother-in-law Nate Hutchinson (Bruce Dern) to track down psychotic bandit and prison escapee Billy Bucklin (David Figlioli), who has a new gang and is heading south toward the Mexican border to pull off some kind of nefarious job.
[McKay refuses to join Billy after his gang has killed the men guarding the wagon in which they were being transported to prison.]
Billy Bucklin: “What about you?”
John McKay: “I’ll see you in hell, Billy.”
Billy Bucklin: “Hell’s bound to be a better place than Yuma prison.”
The wrinkle is that Hutch’s deputy is McKay’s son Joshua (Seth Peterson); he’s tracking the bad guys out ahead of McKay and Hutch. He rescues Liz Kennedy (Amy Jo Johnson) from a couple of the gang and leaves her at a remote trading post, for Hutch and McKay to send her back. She won’t go back, predictably enough. So now she’s following along with Hutch and McKay; she doesn’t have their survival and violence skills, but she gets by on spunk. There’s an undercurrent of tension between McKay and his son. Will there be some sort of rapprochement between the two, and, if so, how? How many of them will survive the upcoming confrontation with Bucklin?
Brothers-in-law, former antagonists and now partners: Nate Hutchinson (Bruce Dern), lawman (for a change), and Chill McKay (Burt Reynolds), convict and bounty hunter.
Bucklin and gang hit a U.S. army gold shipment, slaughtering the soldiers escorting it. Undeterred by the border, Hutch, McKay, Joshua and Liz head into Mexico after Bucklin, and there is a climactic shootout in a Mexican town. It’s better than many of its made-for-television type, although Burt Reynolds’ facelift is distracting. He’s actually not bad in the role, though. The screenplay isn’t great. One wonders it the director’s name, Frank Q. Dobbs, is a pseudonym. He has apparently been involved in other television westerns and western minseries, mostly as a producer: Streets of Laredo, Dead Man’s Walk, Rio Diablo, Johnson County War.
Burt Reynolds had a promising career in westerns beginning in the mid-1960s, when he became part of the cast in the late portions of the long-running show Gunsmoke on television. He appeared as the protagonist in Navajo Joe (1966), a spaghetti western directed by Sergio Coliima. (Reynolds supposedly signed on thinking the director would be another Sergio–legendary Sergio Leone.) He did well enough in a couple of big budget westerns in the early 1970s: the comedy Sam Whiskey and the more serious and underrated The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing, based on a best-selling novel of the time. He seemed like he might have had a robust career in westerns, especially those requiring a comedic touch but not too broad an edge–perhaps the sort of thing James Garner did well. But the genre was dying out for the next couple of decades, and he drifted into such high-box-office-but-low-prestige good-ol’-boy fare as the Smoky and the Bandit and Cannonball Run movies. He’s pretty good here, in the twilight of his career. He and fellow old pro Bruce Dern carry the film, although supporting players Amy Jo Johnson and Seth Peterson are fine in their roles, too..