I loved "Lonesome Dove" (1989), which is why I never watched the sequel ("Streets of Laredo," 1995) or the prequel ("Dead Man's Walk," 1996). Because both films had different casts playing the same characters based on Larry McMurtry's western novels, I was afraid I'd be disappointed. After all, "Lonesome Dove" was a tough act to follow. Nominated for 19 Emmys, the show won in seven categories--but, curiously, not for acting or teleplay. And if there were better Western performances out there than Tommy Lee Jones as former Texas Ranger Woodrow F. Call and Robert Duvall as his longtime sidekick, Augustus "Gus" McCrae, I didn't know of them. With those two guys out of the picture, I simply had no interest in watching something like "Streets of Laredo."
This film has been out of print but rides back into circulation on May 11, courtesy of Vivendi Entertainment and RHI Entertainment--so finally, I had a compelling reason to watch. And all I can say is, strong casting, strong performances, strong storyline, McMurtry's executive producing and a fine transfer to disc make "Streets of Laredo" a considerably better-than-average Western . . . even if it isn't quite the same caliber as "Lonesome Dove." It hooked me right from the beginning, and that's worth something. Like the best mini-series, "Streets of Laredo" depends upon strong characters to make the difference, and they do. For 263 minutes I was completely caught up in this gritty Western. And with this two-disc DVD selling for a suggested retail price of just $14.93 (available for $11.49 from Amazon.com), buying it almost feels like cheating at cards or rustling cattle. It's the best steal-of-a-deal Western fans are going to run across.
The only thing is, fans of "Lonesome Dove" have to accept the fact that James Garner is not Tommy Lee Jones and the other characters that carry over from "Lonesome Dove" are played by actors who aren't trying to imitate the originals. The cast offers their own interpretations of the characters, and I respect that. But as a result, the three Western films don't collectively function the way that the Indiana Jones or "Star Wars" films do. They're really stand-alone mini-series that depend more on backstories than viewers' memories.
Garner was originally offered both roles in "Lonesome Dove," but reportedly declined because of health problems. As Capt. Call, he's a little less menacing and dangerous than Jones played him, but then again Call is older now, well past his prime. But he's just as taciturn as always, short on pleasantries and so unfazed he's practically emotionless.
Capt. Call has been hired by the railroad to stop a young half-breed who seems to take more pleasure out of killing than he does robbing the trains. Saddled with a mild-mannered railroad accountant (Charles Martin Smith, "The Untouchables") whose job it is to keep tabs on expenses, Call looks up his old corporal, Pea Eye (Sam Shepard), hoping he'll join him. But Pea Eye, a character from "Lonesome Dove," had married another one from the original mini-series, a woman named Lorena (Sissy Spacek) who's had five children by her older husband. Not only does she want him to stay home because of the family; she hates Call for what she thinks he did to her in the past. He stays, but an eager young deputy named Ted (Tristan Tait) abandons his pregnant wife for the chance to validate his manhood by riding with a Texas legend.
"Streets of Laredo" paints a pretty realistic picture of the Old West, and not just in details like props and sets and language. McMurtry focuses on relationships and the lives of children, women, and males so that we get a pretty good idea of what it was like back then, and what made them all tic. After Pea Eye decides to catch up with his old friend after all, Lorena puts the children on a train for Nebraska, grabs a gun, and heads south to catch up with him. She may give him a hard time, but he's all she has, and he's been good to the kids. Mothers and male machismo emerges as a major theme, because the other cadre of characters we get in a second plotline is in Mexico, where the cold-blooded teenage killer Joey Garza (Alexis Cruz) hates all gringos because his mother, Maria (Sonia Braga) was "a whore"--though, in reality, we see in McMurtry's complex portrayal of the West that women had little defense against male predators, and had to hook up with a man for protection. And if that man left? But we learn that the turning point for Joey, when he became pure evil, was when one of his stepfathers sold him to the Apaches. That's where he learned many of the skills that make him elusive, and that's where his resentment for whites began to fester and foment.
Cruz does a fantastic job as the child killer, but so does Randy Quaid as John Wesley Hardin and Ned Beatty as the self-appointed law west of the Pecos, Judge Roy Bean. Even comedian George Carlin turns in a decent performance as grizzled carryover from "Lonesome Dove." Sometimes the characters themselves seem a stretch, like the pyromaniacal killer Mox Mox (Kevin Conway) who's sworn to kill Lorena, but veteran TV director Joseph Sargent keeps the McMurtry-written plot moving deftly forward so that there's little time to question weak parts. Before you know it, you're back into a strong segment again. And true grit? Every now and then something reminds you you're in the Old West, as when an old man shoots part of the ear of a deputy off, pulls the hanging chad off the bloody stump, and stuffs it into the man's pocket. "Coulda been your heart," he says. Scenes like that are like old-time after-shave commercials: a real slap in the face that startles you.
And the cinematography? Though not as starkly framed as "Lonesome Dove," it's just as evocative of the period, with more up-angle shots and just as many long shots to showcase the bleak landscape. In short, "Streets of Laredo" is an excellent mini-series that can stand on its own, if viewers forget about character consistency and let it.
Another nice surprise. Usually when a major distributor isn't involved, the production values can suffer, but the picture quality is excellent. There are a few dark scenes where grain overwhelms, but for the most part there's nice definition, natural-looking colors, and an absence of film imperfections. Too bad, though, that the presentation is 1.33:1 instead of widescreen. It's a series that really was "big" enough for widescreen.
The audio is an English Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, and a competent soundtrack that prioritizes speech over effects nicely, though sometimes the music can crank up a little too loudly. Still, there's no distortion and no transfer imperfections evident.
Sorry, no bonus features. What do you want, for 15 bucks?
As a stand-alone mini-series, "Streets of Laredo" merits a high 7 to a low 8 out of 10. As a sequel? It's probably not going to satisfy anyone looking for consistency from film to film. But I think the first point trumps the second. Always.