Stagecoach: The Texas Jack Story is as cumbersome a title as it is a movie. Trace Adkins stars as Nathaniel Reed (I thought I read “Neanderthal Reed” at first, and it was as much an honest mistake as an apt Freudian slip). Reed once robbed a stagecoach (in the same distinct Canadian forest where the movie is set) but nonetheless still can’t get by years later. Civilization in the New World just ain’t fair for giant strapping strong men like Nathaniel.
The past catches up to Nathaniel when the Marshall he shot during a holdup comes calling. The US Marshall Calhoun is played by Kim Coates, notable for his fan-favorite role as the psychotic “Tig” in TV’s Sons of Anarchy. Unfortunately, none of Coates’ comedic or dramatic versatility translates under director Terry Miles.
An off-screen tragedy occurs during an awkwardly staged shootout, thus creating the setting to emancipate Reed from the doldrums of hard-knock domesticity. Most of the remainder of Stagecoach: The Texas Jack Story then retreads a number of overtly familiar story beats and showdowns. The entirety of the movie has the feel of a weekend of western cosplay wherein a game group of thespians decide to improvise a feature-length production by the piecemeal assembly; stock conventions and worn down narrative tropes of bygone Westerns are rushed together by a vague memory of how it should be played out.
The opening sequence seems to take place in one of the producer/star’s vast open-field properties. The scenery is gorgeous yet repetitive. The lush ambiance looks and feels like northern Alberta, Canada or even Ireland as opposed to the Midwest or even Southwest. For example, characters sprinkle names of places around like “Wichita Falls” (in North Texas) or “Sante Fe” (in New Mexico). The references run counter to their real-life locations by a long shot. Perhaps the dialogue functions as an inadvertent homage to director John Ford. Ford’s notorious Monument Valley location shoots, while visually arresting and mythic in scope, weren’t necessarily ideal stand-ins for Texas or Oklahoma.
The dialogue could use a bit of spit shine, as well. One exchange between Adkins’ Nathaniel and the visiting scrawny banker opens with “How ya been?” and “Fine as cream gravy.” It only gets worse from there. Yet, there’s an earnest appeal to Trace Adkins’s raw country twang. He often replaces character depth or gravitas with a gravely, grumbly delivery style. He’s not alone. The acting can be described as a one-dimensional effort for most of the cast. With a $2 million budget, Stagecoach is more of a luxurious experiment in Western cosplay than genre filmmaking.
Again, the Canadian setting is darn near breathtaking, but the imagery runs against the grain of Western mise en scène. The deeply penetrating faux visions of the West photographed by the likes of John Ford, Sam Peckinpah, and Sergio Leone look more like the forests seen in The Hobbit or episodes of The X-Files. In terms of set design, someone has invested in gorgeous replica western housing and passable costuming. Having been raised in the West myself, there’s a love and care to many old west replica towns. Artifact preservation and refurbishment offer ways in which cultural historians and townships capitalize on history. Similarly, the horses displayed in Stagecoach look so pristine in high definition that one would assume these show ponies were not allowed to be mussed-up to resemble “real” western horses during filming.
Judd Nelson’s “Sid” offers a slight tonal diversion when he appears onscreen. While nothing worthy of awards consideration (except maybe a Razzy?), Nelson embraces the silliness of the story and lightens the paralyzed mood. I previously referenced the movie’s close proximity to Western cosplay and the sentiment only grows as the “plot” moseys along. Everyone seems well aware of the tenuous rules of the genre, stopping to drink whiskey from the bottle or reference “beans” being ready for eatin’ by the campfire.
Another frustration is the lack of sustained sequential action. During a second act stagecoach heist, the cast’s absence of emotion could easily be mistaken as a costumed table read. One gets the sense that director-editor Terry Miles and Adkins are real-life buddies who sat around their own modern day campfire late one night talking about bucket list items to check off. Miles is no stranger to B-movie Westerns, having directed the 2012 Christian Slater vehicle Dawn Rider (No I am not kidding, but I am trying to lighten the mood here.).
I must further lament that the soundtrack and score drag an already thin script into and through the mud. A sheer lack of pacing highlights a chief technical issue that limits characters and story. I’m certain the cast and crew comprise a wonderful host of pleasant people, earnest in their work, with a deep love and appreciation for the western form. They wouldn’t be doing this if they didn’t have some sentiment or passion for the project.
Yet the central issues remains that none of this passion translates to screen. There’s a sense that this plot could have worked better as a 60-minute TV pilot (for Canadian TV, to be clear) rather than elongating into a 90-minute elegy to a once mighty genre. Case in point: The main protagonist spends a majority of the third act lying in bed until the closing showdown. I must confess that while watching this unfold, the tragic plot twist to Old Yeller came to mind more than once.
Indeed, the movie falters in cinematic form from beginning to end. On second thought, I’m not sure Stagecoach: The Texas Jack Story would even work as a TV movie for the Hallmark Channel, let alone Saturday afternoons on AMC. TV comes to mind when watching this because characters literally utter the exact same phrases and self-titles over and over again as if coming back from commercial break and offering a refresher for distracted viewers.
As the movie inches toward its anti-climax, the villainous Calhoun waxes dialogue such as, “This is pretty much the longest beating I’ve ever been privy to…” I couldn’t agree more, Calhoun.