Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch (2023)

Rating: C+

Dir: Anthony C. Ferrante
Star: Ross Jirgl, Jeffrey Combs, Anthony Palermo, Geoff Meed

As the title suggests, this is loosely based on the story of Butch Cassidy (Jirgl)  and his outlaw gang, the Wild Bunch, who operated in the West around the turn of the century. The dramatic tension here is mostly built around the gang being pursued by Pinkerton Detective Charlie Siringo (Combs) and his severely psycho sidekick, Tom Horn (Palermo); in reality, Horn was hung for the murder of a 14-year-old boy. But there is also tension within the robbers, in particular between Cassidy, who in this incarnation is strongly averse to shooting people during his robberies, and Kid Curry (Meed), who operates under no such moral limitations. Siringo shot Butch’s dad (Bruce Dern), and when his mother (Dee Wallace) is imperilled, matters come to a violent head.

Although this is an Asylum movie, you can’t really call it one of their mockbusters. There are obvious similarities to certain previous Westerns – and, yes, the Sunshine Kid does show up in the second half. Yet, given that the Redford/Newman version came out more than half a century ago, you can hardly accuse The Asylum of cashing in. It’s been so long since I saw the classic, I don’t recall many details beyond the ending. That certainly isn’t replicated here, the film stopping before Butch and Sundance head off to South America. The movie does take liberties with history, throwing black outlaw Isom Dart into the Cassidy gang, purely for diversity. There’s no evidence he was, though he did cross paths with Tom Horn. Dart probably deserves his own film.

You can perhaps tell, I spent a fair amount of the running time fact-checking the film on Wikipedia. This is both to its credit and a criticism. The characters were interesting enough to merit my attention – especially on the outlaw side. However, the script didn’t do enough to hold it. While I did like how there are good and bad folk on both sides of the law, it is curiously lacking in energy. Witness the gang’s first heist, which unfolds in such a casual way, the supposedly “Wild Bunch” feel more like ticket inspectors than train robbers. It’s also perhaps too cleanly-shot. Everything is bright and sharply in focus: more grubbiness might have given it more Western atmosphere.

What works though, are some of the performances. Combs is awesome, and with Dern and Wallace, are much better than most Asylum actors. Even in this, the gap between them and Jirgl is palpable. Oh, he tries, bless his heart. However, you may well find yourself waiting for the next scene with the veterans. There’s one where Combs is telling an anecdote to Wallace. He’s great – but she is too, simply listening. It is one of those cases where the variation in performance is a distraction, and the split in narrative focus between Cassidy and Siringo draws attention to that difference. However, I’d rather have some good acting than none at all.