For a band of outlaws, the only thing worse than being bad is spending eternity being good.
Cable network TNT prides itself on being a new home for westerns. It’s produced a series of made-for-TV movies showing different types of stories told in a western setting. One of the more unusual is Purgatory, which gives a supernatural twist to the usual gunslinger heroics. Now available on DVD, is it action movie heaven, or does it deserve eternity in Hell?
Somewhere in the old west, the sinister Blackjack Britton (Eric Roberts, National Security) and his gang have just pulled off a huge heist, fleeing into the desert with a posse in hot pursuit. After getting lost in a storm, the gang finds itself in Refuge, a pastoral paradise of a town, filled with kind and unassuming folk. They have the saloon to themselves. Room and board at the local hotel is on the house. The sheriff (Sam Shepard, Black Hawk Down) doesn’t even carry a gun.
While Blackjack sees the town as an opportunity for more thievery and mayhem, the youngest member of his gang, wannabe gunslinger Leo (Brad Rowe, Christina’s House), suspects there’s more to this town that what it seems. Familiar with heroic western legends from his dime novels, Leo is quick to figure out the truth. But will that be enough to stop Blackjack from tearing the town to pieces?
What we have here is a case of missed opportunity. It’s a fun idea, peppered with some fair-to-good acting and production values. But script-wise, the story just doesn’t take advantage of the general idea of the movie. Once the secret of Refuge’s residents is revealed, the movie is almost over. The creators never give the Refuge folks a chance to shine as who they really are. By that point in the story, director Uli Edel (The Mists of Avalon) seems more interested in getting the bullets flying than letting the actors open up and really explore their characters. The script should have been tweaked at the basic story structure level. The bulk of the movie is the town being mysterious. Once the big secret is revealed, then that’s when the fun should really begin. Unfortunately, we don’t get the reveal until late in the film, leaving the audience wanting more.
Many viewers could also take apart the movie with several little nit-picks. How are Blackjack and company able to just ride into Refuge? One could argue that some unseen force drove them there, to give the locals a chance to prove themselves, but that’s never really spelled out. Also, how is Leo able to put two and two together based on some ambiguous sketches in the dime novels? And what is Blackjack’s plan for Refuge, exactly? All his men do is ride around shooting off their guns. I thought these guys were bank robbers.
But, as the movie’s title implies, it’s not all bad. Some of the acting here is good, including Shepard as the world-weary sheriff forced into his responsibility, Rowe as the young conflicted hero, and the luminous Amelia Heinle (The Limey), who gives some humanity to the requisite love interest. Randy Quaid (Christmas Vacation) has some fun with his small but quirky role, and Donnie Wahlberg (Dreamcatcher) gives his character a sense of furious rage burning just below the surface.
There are plenty of nice visuals in the movie as well. The transition from the hot, sweaty desert to the idyllic, pastoral greens of Refuge is well-filmed. The climatic gun battle—probably the entire reason the movie was made—is appropriately explosive and ends with a nice little twist. At other times, though, the use of CGI comes off as too obvious, and is more of a distraction to the Old West setting than anything else.
During the first five minutes of the movie, the picture is riddled with all manner of specks and scratches, so I prepared myself for 95 minutes of squinting. But after that first scene, the picture improves considerably, with the only problems being the occasional noticeable edge enhancement. The 2.0 sound is adequate, but not as booming as it could be during the action sequences. There are no extras except for two trailers—another missed opportunity.
It’s a western with a twist, but not enough of a twist to make it a truly stand-out movie. So despite some good acting and action, cowboy fans can do much better.