The last movie directed by the revered and versatile Howard Hawks, Rio Lobo would seem—if based solely on the genre, star, and title—to be a quasi-successor to Hawks’ wonderful 1959 adventure film Rio Bravo. Yet even though Rio Lobo is a Western with John Wayne in the lead role, Rio Lobo is no Rio Bravo. Whereas the 1959 film bursts with excitement, humor, and vivid characterization, the 1970 film is a turgid slog through random plot elements piled indifferently onto a heap. Everything in Rio Lobo feels half-hearted, from the flat cinematography to the mindless music to the stiff acting. The picture starts out as a Civil War-era heist story, with Confederate soldiers stealing gold from a Union train, but then the narrative shifts into a postwar justice saga, with now-retired Union officer Cord McNally (Wayne) chasing after the traitors who sold information about the train to the Confederacy.
And since that premise, apparently, was deemed insufficient by the filmmakers in terms of plotting, the picture gets mired in various subplots about wronged women seeking vengeance against bad men. Furthermore, to justify the title, there’s another subplot, about the liberation of a small town from oppression by crooked varmints. There’s enough story in Rio Lobo for several different movies, and as a result, everything gets short shrift. The characters feel either clichéd or underdeveloped (sometimes both), the action scenes are confusing (since there are too many players on the filed), and the whole thing is directionless (in every sense of the word, with all due respect to Mr. Hawks).
As usual, appraising Wayne’s “performance” is a pointless endeavor, since the veteran star simply drawls and struts through a rote demonstration of his familiar persona. Luckily, reliable character actors lend flavor to minor parts, with Jack Elam and David Huddleston providing humor and gravitas, respectively—but their work isn’t enough to compensate for the overall mediocrity. Unfortunately, much of Rio Lobo’s cast comprises young actors whose work here explains why they never achieved stardom. Fresh-faced studs Christopher Mitchum and Jorge Rivero aim for likability but instead come across as vapid, while beautiful starlets Susana Dosamantes, Sherry Lansing, and Jennifer O’Neill embarrass themselves with amateurish line deliveries.
In fact, it’s quite shocking to look at the sprawl of bad performances in this movie and realize that such a venerable filmmaker was calling the shots. Clearly, the muse was not with Hawks while he assembled this picture. The pervasive blandness of Rio Lobo also drags down the normally excellent composer Jerry Goldsmith, whose score only catches fire during the big shootout at the end.
Rio Lobo: FUNKY