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The only thing that separates Hallmark Channel's "A Gunfighter's Pledge" from being a top-notch Western is its far-fetched story, questionable casting, misleading title and stereotypical characters. The scenery is terrific, though, and the costumes are perfect.

Luke Perry stars as Matt Austin, a sheriff who realizes too late that an escaped prisoner is coming to kill him or, in his absence, his wife and son. Now it's Matt's turn to see that six-shooter justice is dispensed. But no, that's not the pledge.

Eventually, Matt finds the killer and his no-good brother. In the ensuing gunfight, he accidentally kills an innocent Californio (a Californian of Mexican descent) who was just trying to hire gunmen to keep the town villain, Lamar Horn (C. Thomas Howell), from stealing his family's land.

Flat on his back, blood trickling from his mouth, the Californio asks Matt — the guy who just shot him, for gosh sake — to please help. Matt agrees, and that becomes the gunfighter's pledge (which technically is a sheriff's pledge, but that doesn't sound as exciting).

The rest of the story has Matt, the white hero, rescuing the mostly defenseless Latinos and in the process getting better acquainted with the lovely young widow, Amaya (Jaclyn DeSantis), who now owns the land.

In this film, the town and the villain are like Deadwood Lite, with all the scenery but none of the profanity and only one-third of the pure evil. Try as he might, Howell lacks the heft to be truly menacing. Meanwhile, DeSantis, who speaks with the precision of a New England school marm, needs a dialect coach even more than a hired gun.

Rather remarkably, Perry creates a character so interesting you'd love to see what he would do in a story more credible and complex than this one. Also, director Armand Mastroianni makes the most of the hand he has been dealt, finding some interesting angles and handsome wide shots. (partialdiff)
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