Lawrence Kasdan‘s Silverado is a modern old-fashioned western. It’s old-fashioned in the way that it pretends that the western never fell out of favor as a genre. Embued with the optimism that westerns lost in the late 1960s and 1970s, it freely embraces the time-honored conventions that Blazing Saddles gleefully lampooned a decade earlier. It’s modern in its first-rate production values and its cast of stars-in-the-making.
Filmed mostly in New Mexico, Silverado makes the maximum use of the wide open spaces available. Towns sit in the middle of vast plains that stretch to distant mountains. The cinematography is almost a character unto itself.
As Silverado begins, a taciturn cowboy named Emmet (Scott Glenn) is almost ambushed as he sleeps. After dispatching his attackers, he resumes his journey to a town called Turley, where he’s going to meet his brother, Jake and head out to their sister’s place in Silverado. On the way, he runs across a man lying in the middle of the desert in his underwear. Paden (Kevin Kline) was waylayed by the party he was riding with, robbed and left to die. When they get to Turley, they find the goofy, hyperactive Jake (Kevin Costner) …in jail. Apparently, there was a dispute over the affections of a girl that ended with one man dead and Jake schedule to hang for it. Emmet is determined to bust his brother out, but Paden, who’s had some experience with such things, opts out. That point becomes moot when he encounters one of the men who robbed him. The man winds up dead and Paden winds up in jail next to Jake. After an ingenious break-out, the three men elude the posse chasing them with the help of Mal (Danny Glover), another man who was made to feel unwelcome in Turley.
When they finally arrive in Silverado, they find things aren’t much better for them. The town is run by a powerful rancher named McKendricks. This makes things sticky for Emmet, since he just finished a stretch in prison for killing McKendricks’ father. Mal finds his family has been burned off their land by the rancher’s henchmen. Only Paden initially finds things to his liking, with his old partner in crime, Cobb (Brian Dennehey), now the sheriff and owner of the local saloon, run by the diminutive and dynamic Stella (Linda Hunt). However, as Emmet and Jake, as well as Mal, come into conflict with McKendricks and his ally, Sheriff Cobb, Paden is torn between his loyalty to his old riding buddy and his new friends.
The characters of Silverado are broadly drawn archtypes, but that’s the kind of the movie this is supposed to be. The good guys stand by their family, their friends and their word while the bad guys try to get their way through intimidation. This tale has been told a hundred times before, but rarely has been this much fun to watch. The dialogue is smart and witty and the performances sharp and memorable. Scott Glenn stands in well for Gary Cooper while Kevin Costner excels as a sort of exuberant man-child. Kevin Kline gives a soft spoken performance that vaguely reminded me of Robert Redford as the Sundance Kid. Finally, Danny Glover’s performance is quite effective, even if Mal seems like the most thinly written of the main four chracters.
As Stella, the “Midnight Star”, Linda Hunt just shines as she and Kevin Kline display a genuine chemistry that you just can’t fake. Brian Dennehy is a mountain of reptilian charm. Python-alum John Cleese puts in a delightful cameo as the urbane fish-out-of-water sheriff of Turley.
There are only a few negatives here. Jeff Goldblum seems completely out of place as “Slick,” a gambler who sets up shop in Stella’s saloon. The sub-plot involving Rosanna Arquette as a homesteader was largely cut from the film, making her character mostly pointless.
There are many things that Silverado is not. It is not a post-modern re-interpretation of the western like Unforgiven. It’s also not a modern action film in western garb, like Young Guns or Tombstone. However, if you ever throw an old John Ford film into the DVD player and sigh “They don’t make ’em like that anymore,” then this is your kind of movie.