The American Civil War is over, but there's bad blood between the survivors: some are willing to move on, yet for the likes of the James and Younger brothers, they see it as practically their duty to rob banks to put pressure on the victors. Today one of their crimes grows more serious when one of their number, Ed Miller (Dennis Quaid) is such a hothead that he guns down one of the bank employees of the establishment they are raiding, which makes it all the more imperative that they be caught. Ed leaves by mutual agreement, but the crimes continue...
There was a gimmick to The Long Riders, yet another telling of the Jesse James story (and there were others to come), which was in the casting. The project had been the brainchild of James Keach, younger brother of the more famous Stacy Keach who had encouraged him to get into the acting business. They penned a script which would see them and their other acting brother friends play out the story of the James and Younger Gang, with them as the Jesse and Frank James, and the Carradines as the Youngers, along with the Quaids as the Millers and in a lesser but important to the legend capacity, the Guests as the Fords.
It was such a simple idea that you wondered why more films didn't follow its lead, then you factored in the matter of getting schedules to match up and understood this achievement was easier said than done. On watching the film, you would also notice that the fact the main cast were related just as their characters were didn't actually make much difference to the manner in which events unfolded, but if it attracted publicity to a fairly worthy production, so much the better. As it was, The Long Riders wasn't exactly a blockbuster, but it did attract a cult following partly because of the cast, yet also because of the director, Walter Hill, who was at the helm of his favourite genre.
Certainly the Western was winding down in popularity by this point what with science fiction dominating where cowboys would have been garnering the box office attention, and Heaven's Gate was the final nail in a coffin which may have had an unsteady lid, but didn't allow much to be revived. You could take issue with Hill's surface gloss adding more than a touch of class to a tale of some deeply unlovely outlaws, and for a lengthy stretch the film remained handsome but curiously uninvolving, even unexciting. That could have been down to the cast bringing a measure of their innate actorly charisma to their roles, but not enough to convince us the real people they portrayed were due the Hollywood hero worship treatment.
No matter that there were scenes included noting the gang were a bunch of bad 'uns, the mere act of creating a movie of their yarn inescapably glamourised them, especially with a director like Hill making everything look like a million dollars. Possibly more. Making the most of the script was Pamela Reed as Belle Starr, the prostitute who David Carradine's Cole Younger takes a shine to, so much so that he agrees to get into a knife fight with her husband (James Remar) to prove some masculine point or other. She was intriguing enough to build a whole, different movie around, but not this time, because Hill wanted to flex his artistic muscles in a tribute to Sam Peckinpah: once the Great Northfield Minnesota Raid begins, the whole picture ramps up a few gears in a superb setpiece of violence and intensity. Something as simple as hearing the bullets approaching, and something as by now obvious as splashy blood spurts made for a sequence which all who saw it recognised nothing would stop The Long Riders becoming a cult favourite, if not a classic. Evocative music by Ry Cooder.
[Second Sight's Blu-ray presents a pristine print, with a comprehensive documentary on the making, a dissection on the film's most memorable setpiece, and an interview with Hill about Peckinpah as the extras.]