by Jack Sommersby
Suffered poor reviews and lackluster box office in a year when serious westerns "Pale Rider" and "Silverado" managed more intentional laughs than this intended comedy.Rustlersâ€™ Rhapsody is a lame spoof of those B-westerns that were churned out by the hundreds back in the day, which is a shame because this is writer/director High Wilsonâ€™s follow-up to his uproarious Police Academy from just one year prior, and it hasnâ€™t so much as a single laugh in sight. The opening credits start out with a black-and-white window box, where weâ€™re introduced to the famous Rex Oâ€™ Herlihan, known as â€śThe Singing Cowboy,â€ť who a voiceover narrator informs us appeared in fifty-two movies between 1938-1947; and when the narrator remarks, â€śI wonder what one of these movies would look like today,â€ť the box expands to full-screen and the black-and-white segues into color, but since weâ€™re later told the setting is 1884, weâ€™re utterly confused being that, well, a time-traveling device hasnâ€™t been introduced into the equation. (You know youâ€™re in trouble when a moviemakerâ€™s basic framing device doesnâ€™t hold up to even minimal scrutiny.) The exceedingly well-dressed Rex is outfitted in bright-primary-colored suits that make him look like something of a Sunset Boulevard cowboy pimp, with an assortment of white ten-gallon hats he keeps in a portable dressing closet he keeps just outside of the town of Oakwood Estates; Rex isnâ€™t foul-tempered or malicious, but sweet-natured and unassuming, and totally reliant on knowledge of the Old West heâ€™s learned from the movies heâ€™s starred in, and when he saunters into town and into a saloon he orders a warm milk, which his actor self and not the characters heâ€™s played would order, he gets wide-eyed stares from the bartender and customers -- he remembers what his fictional character would order, and asks for a large glass of warm gin with a human hair in it instead, which meets with unanimous approval. Itâ€™s there that he encounters the ramshackle Pete (G.W. Bailey), who offers Rex information in exchange for some liquid (â€śCan I have another drink? Iâ€™m the town drunk, you knowâ€ť), and when the altruistic Rex finds himself sticking up for a quartet of foreign-accented sheep herders who the town bully has threatened upon entering the saloon, he warns the bully and his two henchmen heâ€™ll shoot them each in the hand. His ace-marksman self succeeds, and those bullies, each cradling their wounded five-fingered Mary, make their way back to their employer, a cattle-baron megalomaniac by the name of Colonel Ticonderoga (Andy Griffith, cast against type), whoâ€™s perplexed at his employeesâ€™ inability to neutralize what would seem to be an easy target. Rex tutors Pete on genre rudiments, correctly guessing that the town prostitute, Miss Tracy (Marilu Henner), has a â€śheart of gold,â€ť and that the editor of the newspaper is â€śa young idealist whoâ€™s hocked everything to buy his printing press.â€ť Meanwhile, the colonel, whose strongest language consists of â€śGee whiz!â€ť, brings in an army of Italian assassins belonging to the railroad baron to do Rex in (Pete, who provides the voiceover, comments, â€śSpaghetti westerns, better background musicâ€ť). From here weâ€™re served more and more in-jokes that have all the laugh quotient of a rubber crutch or a loud belch in church.
"Soporific Western Spoof"
I donâ€™t think I could trust anyone who denies Police Academy didnâ€™t contain at least a dozen big belly laughs, but nor could I trust someone who could buy into the uninspired hokum Wilson is pushing here as anything even remotely witty. The game plan in Rustlersâ€™ Rhapsody is to simply serve up a reversal of cliches as an automatic laugh riot, as if merely taking old westerns and turning their components upside down were imaginative. Thereâ€™s barely enough here for a thirty-minute revue, and because Wilsonâ€™s pacing is so leaden the movie feels twice its eighty-eight minutes (at the halfway mark, my eyes started to glaze over); Wilson doesnâ€™t shape a scene so much as he gives us one static composition after another thatâ€™s bereft of even the slightest visual acuity -- enervating and affectless, itâ€™s nothing short of a miracle that any of this mishmash managed to stick to the celluloid. With Wilson spoofing on the most elemental level and giving us characters with all the dimensions of figures in a pop-up book, and since thereâ€™s barely anything resembling an actual plot (even Mel Brooksâ€™s hit-and-miss Blazing Saddles had something of one), the movie has nothing to fall back on. (It no doubt reaches its nadir when the colonel tells one of his men to â€śput a faggot on the fire,â€ť just to correct himself and say put a log into the fireplace. For the life of me, I still havenâ€™t figured that one out. Anybody?) Throughout I kept harking back not only to old westerns, but western spoofs that actually knew what they were doing and churned out more than a few guffaws, like 1975â€™s The Apple Dumpling Gang and 1978â€™s Hot Lead and Cold Feet, both of which starred that stalwart of a funnyman Don Knotts, whereas Rustlersâ€™ Rhapsody is stuck with the woefully miscast Tom Berenger as Rex. With Police Academy Wilson scored a major casting coup with the engaging, alacritous Steve Guttenburg as the mischievous hero Mahoney; not so with Berenger, whoâ€™s neither a light nor heavy comedian. Though solid in supporting roles in The Dogs of War and The Big Chill, Berenger is stiff and bland here, and since he hasnâ€™t a speck of comic timing, and without the sense to stylize his physicality or put some ironic spin on his line readings, all we can do is sit back and watch an actor clearly uncomfortable with what heâ€™s been hired to do. (The appealing Bailey, who was the villain in Police Academy, tries to get some give-and-take going with Berenger, but he canâ€™t get a rise out of him -- they not only donâ€™t seem to be in the same scene, but even the same movie.) Luckily, in the movieâ€™s final sections, Patrick Wayne, son of the legendary western actor John, appears as Bob Barker, the best gunman in the territory, and he considerably livens things up with some real charm and charisma. Thereâ€™s a scene where Rex and Bob verbally face off before going for their guns, sizing each other up, and Wayne, doing some shrewd underplaying, clearly knows what heâ€™s doing and steals the show so completely he makes Berenger look downright foolish. I donâ€™t know if Wayne is much of an actor, but in just two scenes he makes quite the indelible impression -- he registers. The hopeless Rustlersâ€™ Rhapsody couldâ€™ve used a hundred more helpings of him.The DVD sports a decent transfer, but being that this is on one of those early bare-bones discs from Paramount, not even a theatrical trailer for a special feature.
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originally posted: 03/26/15 02:44:21