Justin Lee accomplishes something quite rare with his latest Western Badland: he pays heart-on-the-sleeve tribute to good ol’ Westerns of yore, while unabashedly sustaining a tongue-in-cheek, B-flick tone. The pleasant surprise is that the filmmaker – who wrote and directed the feature – seems to have learned from the mistakes of his previous efforts (Big Legend, Any Bullet Will Do) and delivers a perfectly adequate, at times, even enthralling cinematic ride. Considering the recent deluge of Westerns – Slow West, Bone Tomahawk, Never Grow Old, The Sister Brothers, to name a few – that’s quite a feat. Badland may not reach the subversive heights of those features, but it would hold its own in a Mexican standoff.
“…spends his time traversing the titular hellish badlands, populated by scoundrels – Confederate war criminals…”
Mathias Breecher (Kevin Makely) is a detective (“too calculated and professional” to be a full-blown bounty hunter), seeking to achieve redemption for his sins (the Breecher/preacher parallel is not unintentional). He spends his time traversing the titular hellish badlands, populated by scoundrels – Confederate war criminals, whom Breecher tracks down and brings to violent justice. One of them happens to be the dying Reginald Cooke (Bruce Dern), father of the self-sufficient and caring land owner Sarah (Mira Sorvino). “He’s living on borrowed time,” she tells Breecher, reawakening his deadened heart. Our hero ends up sparing the brutalities and staying instead to see Reginald’s last dying breath. In the meantime, he may or may not fall for the heroine, while protecting her treasured land from the sleazy Fred Quaid (James Russo).
Believe it or not, that’s just the first hour of Lee’s two-hour feature. Breecher proceeds to leave Sarah and go after his next target: Sheriff Huxley Wainwright (Jeff Fahey), a despot ruling over the most Western of towns called Knife’s Edge. Badland ends with a “good old-fashioned dime novel showdown,” “badge against badge.” Lest I forget, there’s also Breecher’s “frenemy,” Harlan (Wes Studi), who informs Breecher, in a bit of foreshadowing: “Sometimes soon, Matthias, we shall exchange fire with one another. It is inevitable.”