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Featured Blu-ray Review: John Wayne Blu-ray Double-Shot: Big Jake and Rio Lobo

May 30th, 2011

John Wayne Blu-ray Double-Shot: Big Jake - Buy from Amazon and Rio Lobo - Buy from Amazon

This week, a couple John Wayne westerns are making their debuts on Blu-ray. Both Big Jake and Rio Lobo were made in the 1970s, meaning they were at the tail end of John Wayne's career, and are not among his ten best, or most well-known films. Also, in the 40 years since they were made, tastes have changed drastically. On the other hand, for a lot of people, second-tier John Wayne is still better than a lot of films coming out today. So are these films worth (re)discovering, or have times changed too much? And do they shine on Blu-ray, or are they placeholder releases till a worthy special edition comes out?

Big Jake

This film is set in 1909 and after a brief prologue about the differences between the cultured cities of the day and the still wild west, we are introduced to John Fain's gang of outlaws as they ride up to the McCandles Ranch. After a quick gun fight, almost everyone at the ranch, workers or relatives of the people who worked there are killed, and the Little Jake is kidnapped. The boy's father, Jeff, is shot, twice, and his grandmother, Martha, is given the ransom note with a map. Follow the map with $1 million in $20 bills until your are met, or the boy dies. The army and the Rangers are willing to help deliver the ransom to Mexico, but she's thinks a job this harsh and unpleasant needs a man that is extremely harsh and unpleasant. The only man she knows that fits that bill is her ex-husband, Jacob McCandles, a.k.a.. Big Jake

Big Jake arrives with his dog, named Dog, and learns of the situation. He wants to go it alone, but Buck and the Rangers are there, as are his two sons, James and Michael. For the most part, it's not a happy reunion, as Big Jake ran out on the family nearly a decade ago. Not only are there family difficulties, but Big Jake is an old-fashioned sort and the world is becoming motorized. Even the Rangers are driving cars, while the younger of his two sons, Michael, spooks Jake's horse with his motorcycle.

When the kidnappers are spotted not too far from the ranch, it is decided that the Rangers will drive up there are try to ambush them, while Big Jake is to ride with the money as the kidnappers demanded, in case the ambush doesn't work. He asks if James wants to ride with him, but he'll have to ride out alone. He does meet up with an old Apache friend, Sam Sharpnose, who agrees to help him track the kidnappers. Shortly afterward, the Rangers' plan for an ambush backfires as they become the ambushees and several are killed. Big Jake rides along shortly after the fight ends and he, Sam, James, Michael, and Dog follow the map and hope they can deal with the kidnappers when they meet them. Even that plan is not going to be as straightforward as it sounds.

This is definitely second-tier John Wayne and as he was coming to the end of his career, you could tell he wasn't able to keep up with the physical demands of an action oriented western, so there are a few more jokes thrown in this time around. This includes some rather slapstick jokes (like Michael bumbling with his new gun) as well as more well-crafted humor regarding John Wayne's character of the aging cowboy being left behind in a changing world. On the one hand, this latter source of humor is character driven and adds to the movie. On the other hand, the former conflicts with the overall tone. This is a movie about a gang of kidnappers who are willing to kill women and children in order to get their hands on money. A movie where the bad guys are child murderers is not the kind of movie where you want slapstick humor.

So when comparing Big Jake to other films in John Wayne's filmography, it does suffer. However, if you are a fan of the actor or of westerns in general, it is still worth checking out at the very least.

The Extras

There are no extras on the Blu-ray. None. Not even a trailer. The film looks good, it looks great if you take into account the film's age. Sure, there are a few scratches in the print, and some of the scenes look a little soft, but for the most part, the details are sharp and the colors pop. The audio is clean, but uncomplicated. You do get a bit of the score coming in through the back speakers, but that's about it. Surely they could have spread the gunshots around a bit more, at the very least.

The Verdict

In Big Jake, you have to deal with a trade-off between John Wayne's experience and his age. For most of his fans, this is not too steep a price to pay. However, $16 for a bare-bones Blu-ray is a little too much, and unless you are a completist, I think a rental is enough.

Rio Lobo

It's the waning days of the Civil War and the Union Army is transporting a large amount of gold via train. But as Colonel Cord McNally and Lieutenant Forsythe communicate orders through the telegraph, Confederate soldiers are listening in and planning a heist. They sabotage the tracks with grease to stop the train from climbing a hill, chase out the troops with a hornet's nest, and then ride the train down the hill to where the rest of the Confederate troops are waiting for them. The plan worked great, at least for the Confederates. Lieutenant Forsythe is badly injured jumping from the train and dies as the result.

McNally goes after the perpetrators knowing that they must have had inside information, and their informant was a traitor. But after being captured by Pierre Cordona and Tuscarora Phillips, and then turning the tables on his captors, he can't get them to talk. (Although they are quite chatty when they have him captured.) It isn't until after the war is over that they decide to cooperate. McNally doesn't hold a grudge against either of the men, even though one of his friends died in the heist. After all, they were soldiers and it was war. However, the person that sold them the information, he was a traitor, and that makes it personal. Unfortunately, they don't know who it was, but they do give McNally the little information they have. (There were two of them: a big guy and a smaller albino.) They also promise to get in touch if they see them again.

Flash forward a bit and Cordona sends for McNally to meet him in Blackthorne, which is near Rio Lobo, where Cordona now lives. When McNally gets into town, he meets with Sheriff Cronin. They are just about to go over to the hotel to meet with Cordona when Shasta Delaney comes in wanting to report a murder. One of the deputies in Rio Lobo shot and killed an innocent man, but it's outside of Sheriff Cronin jurisdiction and there's nothing he can do. However, that changes when the deputy comes to arrest Shasta on trumped up charges, and that deputy is... Whitey Carter. Yes, he's an albino. Now we are getting somewhere. Of course, that somewhere is Spoiler Territory, so we will stop with the plot there.

Rio Lobo is unfortunately the weaker of the two films, but it is hard to point to any one aspect of the film and say, 'That's where it went wrong.' It's more a problem of an overwhelming sense of Deja Vu. It's a by-the-numbers western that is well made, it was directed by Howard Hawks, after all. I do like the train heist at the beginning of the film and that action scene was the highlight of the film for me. But after that creativity, the film wanders into a plot involving the bad guy stealing land. How big of a cliché is that? With an uninspired plot, the actors don't seem too interested in trying their hardest to lift the material, and the end result is well-worn and comfortable, but hardly inventive.

It was Howard Hawks' last film and as such is important, but it is not his most beloved.

The Extras

Again, there are absolutely no extras on the DVD. Also, the video is weaker this time around with less detail, colors that are bright but not as bright and there are a few too many specks here and there. The audio is on par with the above Blu-ray, maybe a bit better, which is to say the dialogue is sharp, while the surround sound speakers are used slightly more. Overall it is an improvement over the DVD, but not enough that the technical presentation makes up for the total lack of extras.

The Verdict

Rio Lobo is Howard Hawks' swan song, but unless you are a completist, this featureless Blu-ray is only worth a rental.

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Filed under: Video Review, Big Jake