Louis L'Amour was writing one of his many memorable western novels, I can't help but think if he specifically thought of Tom Selleck as a potential star. Talk about a match made in heaven from book to film. One of several worthwhile examples is a 2001 TV movie, Crossfire Trail.
It's 1880 in the Pacific Ocean and a ship is making its way to San Francisco. On board, a man named Rafe Covington (Selleck) has made a promise to a dying man who owns an expansive cattle ranch in the Wyoming Territory. He's long been away from the ranch and his wife, Anne (Virginia Madsen), and doesn't know what's come of them. With two friends along to help out, Rafe heads for the ranch not sure what he's stepped into. Anne is under the assumption that her husband died well over a year ago and for better or worse has moved on, and is even engaged (sort of) to the local businessman and head honcho, Bruce Barkow (Mark Harmon). No matter the extreme difficulties thrown his way, Rafe intends to keep his word to a dying friend, even when Barkow resorts to violent measures to get what he wants.
Want some proof that the western genre isn't dead? Debuting on TNT in January 2001, 'Crossfire' racked up over 12 million viewers. It was the most watched TV movie until....2007's High School Musical 2 (Yeah, there's a proud moment for you). Why did this 2001 made-for-TV western resonate so well with audiences? There's something to be said for Louis L'Amour westerns whether they're in film form or good, old-fashioned novels. We're talking good guys and bad guys, keeping your word versus betrayal and backstabbing. Don't get me wrong, I love the more adult-themed 1950s westerns, the ultra-violent spaghetti westerns and the cynical 1970s westerns, but it's nice on occasion to go back and revisit the heart of the western; good vs. bad. Kudos to director Simon Wincer (Quigley Down Under). Oh, and Alberta, Canada fills in nicely for the American west with some gorgeous-looking film locations.
No stranger to Louis L'Amour adaptations, Selleck picks up where he left off with The Sacketts and The Shadow Riders. He's also put his western stamp on films like Quigley Down Under (with Wincer), Last Stand at Saber River and Monte Walsh. Selleck just seems at home in the western and especially so in bringing L'Amour's laconic, steadfast heroes. He does a great job as Rafe Covington, a cowboy, a drifter, a sharpshooter, and a man who sees a chance to settle down and create something for himself. A man of few words, he's comfortable in his own skin and lives by his set of morals, judgements and beliefs. Selleck makes it look easy and has some excellent chemistry with his co-star, Virginia Madsen. Maybe more than that, he looks like a cowboy in the saddle, throwing down with a bad guy who's just asking for it, and lining up a shot with his new-model Winchester rifle.
As with several other western/L'Amour novels, our hero needs a team. Familiar, archetypal characters, but good characters. Here, Rafe isn't alone as he's got Joe Gill (Wilford Brimley), the grizzled ranch-hand, Rock Mullaney (David O'Hara), the fun-loving, hard-drinking Irishman, and J.T. Langston (Christian Kane), the youngster of the group proving he belongs with the rest, proving he's a good cowboy. There's some great moments among the group of four, cowboys from different backgrounds riding the trail or sitting around a campfire, those perfect little moments that stand out in the western genre.
For a TV western, there's a pretty decent cast overall. Before his NCIS days, Mark Harmon gets to villain it up as Barkow, the smooth businessman with a sinister streak right up his back. As his enforcer, Brad Johnson appears about halfway through the movie as Bo Dorn, the hired killer with absolutely no scruples. His scenes with Selleck's Rafe especially crackle with intensity. Also look for Barry Corbin as a sheriff with no backbone, Rex Linn, Marshall Teague, and Patrick Kilpatrick as assorted cowboy fodder for Rafe, and William Sanderson as Dewey, the saloon bartender. Not huge names but some very solid actors and performances sprinkled throughout.
Look, Crossfire Trail is a good western. It's not a classic, and it makes no effort to rewrite the genre. You could easily see John Wayne playing Rafe Covington with a cast full of familiar faces around him in a 1950s western directed by Henry Hathaway. There's not a ton of gunplay, most of that saved for the finale as all our different good guys and bad guys have it out in a vacant western street. You know the ending before it's even there, and you know what? It doesn' matter in the least. A good story, a perfect star, an excellent supporting cast. You don't need much more when it comes to the western. Enjoy this one. I certainly did.
Crossfire Trail (2001): ***/****