An unusual western — and not just for the fact that it stars four sets of real-life brothers playing brothers — Walter Hill’s The Long Riders is an expertly mounted tale about the exploits of the Jesse James gang. Elliptically structured, the film features various episodes that offer an intriguing character-based look into the lives of outlaws, and climaxes with a technically brilliant shootout that owes something to Penn and Peckinpah, but stands as a virtuoso work on its own.
In post-civil war America, the James-Younger gang is infamous for its daring bank robberies, and is populated by the Younger brothers — Cole, Jim and Bob (David, Keith and Robert Carradine), Jesse and Frank James (James and Stacy Keach), and Clell and Ed Miller (Randy and Dennis Quaid). As the film opens, a bank job is botched by a trigger-happy Ed, leading to his expulsion in the group. Soon after, brothers Charlie and Bob Ford (Christopher and Nicholas Guest) express their interest in filling the vacancy.
The gang’s actions are kicked into high gear with the supposedly inadvertent murder of the youngest Younger brother, and their crime spree is matched by the efforts of the famous Pinkerton National Detective Agency to bring the group down. The legend has been put to screen so many times, The Long Riders doesn’t have much to offer in the way of narrative surprises, and it knows it. Rather, Hill crafts a film focused on small moments, character beats and a distinctly visceral style that proves an excellent match for the material.
Add to that the simple pleasure of seeing a powerhouse acting family like the Carradines interacting, along with the never-better Keach brothers, and The Long Riders is destined to become a modern western favorite among those approaching it for the first time.