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The Desperate Trail Reviews

With its taut pacing and well-crafted characterizations, THE DESPERATE TRAIL should satisfy viewers craving an old-fashioned adult Western. This subtly modernized cowboy picture gets a lot of mileage out of its gallop down the Old Vengeance Trail. When the stagecoach carrying her to the hoosegow is robbed by bandits, convicted murderer Sarah O'Rourke (Linda Fiorentino) seizes the opportunity to escape from her keeper, Marshall Speakes (Sam Elliott). (As we learn later, the man Sarah killed was her physically abusive husband, and Speakes is her father-in-law.) Another passenger, fast-talking dandy Jack Cooper (Craig Sheffer), facilitates Sarah's getaway but incurs her wrath by grabbing the loot for himself. Hunting the fugitives down, Speakes browbeats townspeople into forming a posse, offering a reward and falsely telling them that Sarah murdered the stage drivers. Meanwhile, Sarah risks recapture when she tricks Jack Cooper out of the stash while he's dallying with a prostitute. Barely escaping the greedy locals, Jack and Sarah form a criminal partnership. The two raise capital by cheating in a card game, dodging both disgruntled gamblers and ambush in town the next day. They find temporary shelter with Jack's brother Walter (Frank Whaley) at the Cooper Ranch, but soon have a romantic falling-out. Sarah's solo flight results in her apprehension, and Jack allows himself to be captured so he can execute a slick escape plan. Trailed after their breakout to Cooper Ranch, Jack and Sarah wield their six-guns in a bloody battle that leaves both Walter and Speakes' hunting party dead. Before wounded Speakes can take his final shot at avenging his son, Sarah guides the gun hand of the injured Jack and the couple shoot down Speakes together. The dynamic that drives this solidly crafted tale of frontier injustice is the interlocking triangular relationship of Speakes and his prey, Sarah and Jack. It's a classic narrative, equally riveting in its tale of two outlaws who redeem themselves through love and its portrait of an ostensible peacekeeper whose thirst for revenge drains him of all humanity. Despite rationalizing Sarah's crimes with a Wild West twist on the Burning Bed defense, THE DESPERATE TRAIL never tries the viewer's patience with politically correct anachronisms. Director P.J. Pesce, whose unimpressive 1992 debut was the Corman comedy BODY WAVES, pays homage to Peckinpah in several sharply staged scenes, particularly a full-throttle ambush in which innocent passers-by bite the dust. An effective soundtrack makes use of eerie bells and bagpipes to create an air of menace. THE DESPERATE TRAIL doesn't re-invent the Western, but it re-opens our eyes to the possibilities of the genre. (Graphic violence, extreme profanity, nudity, adult situations.)