Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Last Hard Men (1976)

          An enjoyable but forgettable Western thriller, The Last Hard Men combines a string of macho clichés. Circa the early 1900s, cold-blooded criminal Provo (James Coburn) is part of a prison labor crew until he stages a violent escape, enlisting several fellow convicts to form an outlaw gang. (Fans of cheesy TV will notice Larry Wilcox, later of CHiPs fame, as the youngest member of Provo’s gang.) Although Provo claims he wants to rob banks, his real motivation is hunting down the man who sent him to jail, square-jawed peacemaker Sam Burgade (Charlton Heston). Now a retired widower, Burgade is happily occupied with getting his beautiful daughter, Susan (Barbara Hershey), married off to her affectionate beau, Hal (Christopher Mitchum). Yet when Burgade learns about Provo’s escape and subsequent crime spree, he races to intercept the train on which Provo’s gang was spotted. Unfortunately, Provo arranged the train sighting as a decoy so he could kidnap Susan and draw Burgade out to the wilderness for a showdown. There’s a smidgen more to the story than this synopsis suggests, but The Last Hard Men is essentially a macho duel preceded by foreplay.
          Director Andrew V. McLaglen demonstrates his usual sure hand for this sort of material, keeping things moving at a steady pace and ensuring that the nastiest violence leaves a mark. However, at one point he awkwardly tries to channel Sam Peckinpah—late in the movie, as a means of provoking Burgade, Provo gives his thugs permission to rape Susan, and McLaglen stages the ensuing pursuit/assault in lurid slow-motion. Artsy flourishes don’t gel with McLaglen’s meat-and-potatoes style, so the scene feels weirdly dissonant and perverse. As for the movie’s acting, Coburn is genuinely frightening when his character gets crazed with bloodlust, but Heston is on autopilot. It doesn’t help that many of Heston’s scenes are designed to showcase supporting player Mitchum (son of Robert), whom various producers spent several years trying to transform into a star despite his lack of charisma. Hershey adds welcome toughness to an underwritten role, demonstrating how quickly she was outgrowing the ingénue style of her early-’70s performances.

The Last Hard Men: FUNKY

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