The Long Riders, Walter Hill’s take on the exploits of the Jesse James and Cole Younger gang, is an entertaining, highly watchable Western with some charismatic performances, if not quite a classic of the genre. The film’s ace in the hole, casting real-life brothers to play the ones in the gang, may sound like a bit of a gimmick, but it’s actually a strategy that pays off beautifully (despite the fact I can’t help but think that the roles of the Quaid brothers should have been reversed). Although James Keach produced the film, he and his brother Stacey, as Jesse and Frank James, respectively, take something of a back seat to the Younger brothers, terrifically played by David and Keith Carradine. It’s Keith in particular, whose character, Jim, seems to spend half the film romancing a whore, in some of the film’s lighter moments, who delivers one of the film’s strongest and most appealing performances.
Hill and his screenwriters are generous with their sympathy for the notorious bandits: the film opens with a bank robbery that goes wrong when one of them shoots a civilian, causing the trigger-happy criminal to be exiled from the gang. The James-Younger gang don’t kill the innocent; but rather it’s the undiscriminating Pinkertons, hot on their tails, who are the true criminals, unleashing their fire on anything or anyone that stands in their way.
Episodic in nature, the film isn’t built around any one narrative arc, but rather follows the already-notorious gang through their – at times – even mundane existence, as they go from bank robbery to hiding out, chasing women, attending funerals and dances, and, of course, attempting to dodge the law. And it all ends with the notorious betrayal of Jesse James – the subject of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, one of the best Westerns in recent years. The feel is almost languorous throughout, demanding a little patience from the audience, before rewarding them with a terrific climactic shoot-out, with plenty of slow-motion shots of spurting blood and reeling, writhing men.
Carefully composed and beautifully shot, with a soundtrack by the legendary Ry Cooder, there are more than enough elements packed in this Western to recommend it. But what makes it a special treat is the chance to rediscover some fine acting from a bunch of Hollywood legends who seem to have lost their way in recent years.