This review was written for the network broadcast of "Comanche Moon."
9-11 p.m. Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday, Jan. 13, 15-16
Hard to believe, but it's been nearly two decades since the glorious miniseries Western saga "Lonesome Dove" came riding through CBS in 1989. It's considered by many to be the finest mini of all time, though as I recall it lost out for the Emmy that year to "War and Remembrance." No matter. It's a classic. So when you invoke the "Dove" name, you'd better be prepared to pale by comparison -- even if you're Larry McMurtry, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel on which the mini was based.
For "Comanche Moon," his "Dove" prequel, McMurtry joined forces with "Brokeback Mountain" partner Diana Ossana (who together won Oscars for that screenplay) to adapt the novel into this six-hour horse opera that's blessed with some powerful scenes but too much lightweight patter. It's as if McMurtry and Ossana were so concerned about comparisons to the classic from which it's spun that they made sure it feels less like an homage than its own seriocomic creation. What results isn't worth three nights of anyone's life, even if it carves a collection of memorable moments into the mix.
Again, McMurtry and his cohorts Dyson Lovell and Simon Wincer (who served as producer and director on "Dove," respectively, and return here to work the same jobs) had to know going in that this was essentially a thankless task that lie before them. "Moon" was never going to be able to be assessed in a vacuum, not when "Dove" had proven such a magical interlude. I mean, shoot, it starred Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones as leads Gus McCrae and Woodrow F. Call.
Filling those boots this time are Steve Zahn as the hard-drinking and emotional Gus and Karl Urban (who appeared in "The Bourne Supremacy" and a pair of "Lord of the Rings" flicks) as the hard-driving Call. No one expected either of these guys to match the work of their predecessors, but in fact they don't even come close. As Gus, Zahn is alternately pining and crazy; as a sullen Call, Urban reminds us of an expressionless statue. Their chemistry together is scarcely evident.
"Moon" catches up with our heroes as semi-young Texas Rangers when they join up with Captain Inish Scull (Val Kilmer), a Yankee aristocrat and hero of the recently concluded Mexican War, as they hunt across a pre-Civil War Texas for a Comanche chief (Wes Studi), a horse thief (Adam Beach) and a Mexican outlaw (Sal Lopez). The quest stretches across all three nights of the mini, moving in a linear fashion that nonetheless takes too many side journeys to supply color. Those departures have the unfortunate effect of detracting from the dramatic impact of the narrative, which in the McMurtry-Ossana teleplay is in truth less a cohesive story than a series of snippets that give us insight into prairie life during a warring time in the Old West.
Kilmer travels far over the top to a place of irredeemable arrogance. He's pretty much all over the map in his performance. But at the same time, he's quite the hoot, playing this more for laughs than credibility. Zahn and Urban are bickering and largely unlikable, which takes its toll on the audience as the mini moves along. The ladies tend to fare better, having the more intriguing characters: Rachel Griffiths as a gloriously over-the-top, ballbusting vixen (and Kilmer's wife); Elizabeth Banks ("Scrubs") as Maggie, the young prostitute with a heart of gold and Woodrow's gal; and Clara (Linda Cardellini of "ER"), a smarty-pants, saucy dame who leads Gus around by the nose.
"Moon" leads to an unsatisfying climax that doesn't quite connect as drama the way McMurtry and Ossana perhaps intended. It only serves to set us up for "Lonesome Dove" if "Dove" itself were to be screened afterward, and of course it's nowhere in sight.
CBS Paramount Network Television and Sony Pictures Television
Executive producers: Diana Ossana, Larry McMurtry, Paul Frank, Adam Shulman, Julie Yorn
Producer: Dyson Lovell
Co-producers: Karen Mayeda-Vranek, Mary Church, Larry Rapaport
Teleplay: Diana Ossana, Larry McMurtry
Based on the novel by: Larry McMurtry
Director: Simon Wincer
Director of photography: Alan Caso
Production designer: Paul J. Peters
Costume designer: Van Broughton Ramsey
Editor: Terry Blythe
Music: Lennie Niehaus
Sound mixer: Darryl L. Frank
Casting: Lynn Kressel
Inish Scull: Val Kilmer
Inez: Rachel Griffiths
Gus McCrae: Steve Zahn
Woodrow F. Call: Karl Urban
Clara: Linda Cardellini
Maggie: Elizabeth Banks
Jake Spoon: Ryan Merriman
Long Bill Coleman: Raymond McKinnon
Deets: Keith Robinson
Buffalo Hump: Wes Studi
Blue Duck: Adam Beach
Gov. Pease: James Rebhorn
Tudwal: Jake Busey
Pearl: Melanie Lynskey
Ahumado: Sal Lopez
First Old Comanche: Floyd Westerman
Elmira Forsythe: Kristine Sutherland
Pea Eye Parker: Troy Baker