dvd review: ACES 'N EIGHTS

As a diehard fan of horror movies, I have mastered the fine art of getting by on what is given to me. By this I mean that like so many other horror fans, I am willing to cut some slack to certain films, just because they are horror flicks. Sometimes I just want to see something that is a bit scary, has some cool gore effects, and is not totally devoid of all forms of intelligence; and if a movie delivers enough of theses things, even if it’s not all that good, I’ll go easy on it. The same rules, however, do not apply to westerns. As a genre, I love westerns, with The Wild Bunch being my personal favorite, and classics like The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance, The Searchers, Once Upon a Time in the West and The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez also ranking up there in my top picks. I also love most Clint Eastwood westerns, and I’m a big fan of spaghetti westerns, even though most of ‘em suck. I guess my point is that when it comes to westerns, I’d like to think my standards are high, and I’m not willing go easy on a movie simply because it has guys on horseback shooting each other. If that were the case, I’d be singing the praises of Aces ‘N Eights, a maudlin made-for-television oater that only seems good for making you want to sit down and watch Ride the High Country.

Casper Van Dien, sporting a Clint Eastwood-like beard and looking like the illegitimate love-child of spaghetti western icons Franco Nero (Django) and Gianni Garko (Sartana), co-stars as Luke Rivers, a gunslinger who loses his taste for violence while working with D.C. Cracker (Bruce Boxleitner) and the ridiculously evil Tate (Jeff Kober). Three years after his last gun-for-hire unpleasantness, Luke finds himself employed by crusty curmudgeon Thurmond Prescott (Ernest Borgnine). It seems that old man Prescott owns a piece of land that the railroad wants to build on, which leads to a potentially dangerous situation, ‘cause Prescott ain’t about to give up his land. When Tate is called in to “persuade” Prescott and the other uncooperative landowners to give up their land, it isn’t long before the cold steel is spitting hot lead, and the bodies are hitting the dirt. Meanwhile, Cracker wrestles with being loyal to his boss, Tate, or siding with Luke, who is still having trouble picking up the gun (which may or may not have something to do with the cut on his lower lip that looks like an outbreak of herpes). Of course, we pretty much know exactly how this is all going to end—and by “exactly” I mean there are no surprises to be found in Aces ‘N Eights. In fact, a more fitting title would be Contrived ‘N Clichéd.

Of the long list of problems with Aces ‘N Eights, the biggest has to be the script, which is nothing more than a tired recycling of old clichés and conventions that include the nefarious railroad agents terrorizing innocent land owners, the valiant farmer who takes a stand against the bad guys, the retired gunslinger drawn back into a world of violence (and as a bonus we also get a second gunslinger with a crisis of conscious), and that’s just the short list of uninspired and wholly unoriginal material that permeates this film. Co-writer Dennis Shryack may have been one of the writers of Eastwood’s Pale Rider, but that was a long time ago, and he’s clearly scraping the bottom of his creative barrel on Aces ‘N Eights. And while blame should be shared equally with all those involved, the script starts in a state of wanting, and not even the stellar talent of Casper Van Dien can save the day.

While the script by Shryack and co-writer Ronald M. Cohen must shoulder the major share of blame for this disappointing tale, director Craig R. Baxley must not be left out of this session of the blame game. As a stuntman and second-unit director, Baxley has an impressive resume, but when it comes to being a rock-out-with-his-cock-out director of a project, his best work is either episodes of The A-Team or the Carl Weathers “classic” Action Jackson, which is not enough to earn him bragging rights to being a master of cinema. Baxley’s work is journeyman at best, and while a sense of style or grit may have gone a short way to making this film better, there is not enough of either to carry this movie anywhere close to the threshold of being fun to watch.

The bad script and tepid direction all come together to create a western where it is easy to tell who the bad guys are because they all have a sadistic smile on their faces when maiming and killing. Seriously. You know when the bad guys are getting ready to do something truly evil, because they smile and laugh a lot. Meanwhile the good guys are recognizable for perpetual three-day stubble and herpes (at least one of them is). The other good guy, Boxleitner, simply appears to be wearing some really bad prosthetic teeth. And if those aren’t prosthetic teeth…Bruce…my apologies…but please go see a dentist!

The only reason to watch Aces ‘N Eights is for the supporting performance by veteran actor Ernest Borgnine; and even that’s not enough to really warrant watching this thing all the way through—especially when you can just watch The Wild Bunch. The rest of the cast diligently try to prove that they are real actors, even though the script clearly has them playing cardboard cut-outs. Seriously, the bad guys are so evil that they become a joke—villains for the villainous sake of villainy. And the heroes are so uncharismatic, you actually wouldn’t mind seeing them get killed, as long as Tate and his evil henchmen smile so sinisterly while doing it that it would come as no surprise to find out they eat the flesh of babies off-camera.

Although it is not so bad that it is completely unwatchable, Aces ‘N Eights isn’t begging to be seen. As far as westerns go, it is obviously a tired movie that was made for television. But if television westerns are where your heart is at, you’d be better served watching episodes of Gunsmoke or Bonanaza, any number of which are far more entertaining this saddle-sore nonsense. Young Guns II, American Outlaws and Texas Rangers—all three of which were no good—are all better than Aces ‘N Eights. I would only watch these other three westerns if they were on television, and I couldn’t find the remote control to change the channel. If Aces ‘N Eights were on television, and couldn’t find the remote control, I’d pick my lazy ass up off the couch and walk across the room just to turn this junk off.



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