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Blu-ray Reviews: John Wayne's RIO LOBO & BIG JAKE Arrive But Fail To Dazzle

A pair of late career period John Wayne Westerns land on Blu-ray - but are they worth the money in high-definition?

John Wayne holds a very dear place in my film fandom - it was his films, and his Westerns particularly that I remember most from my very early childhood. Watching them with grandfathers on a Sunday afternoon, I'd come to welcome films like The Searchers, Shane and True Grit (which I have already reviewed on Blu-ray) as part of my life, and I still count The Quiet Man as one of my favourite of all time, and I continue to base my idealised vision of male heroism on his wide shoulders. A lot of Wayne's films will forever be cruelly classified as too similar, and I suppose there is a very pressing argument that you know what to expect from Wayne, especially in his Western work. But that isn't to say they aren't still great film experiences. Two of the great man's lesser known films - Rio Lobo and Big Jake - have just been released on blu-ray in the UK, which may hopefully introduce some new fans to Wayne's work - something that will undoubtedly now be a lot easier given the success of the remake of True Grit. Rio Lobo was the fifth time Wayne had collaborated with Howard Hawks, and probably more than any other Wayne film it typifies that overly-familiarity that his films are often accused of, because Rio Lobo is essentially the same film as Rio Bravo, which also teamed Wayne up with Hawks and screenwriter Leigh Brackett. It is also widely heralded as one of the films that sounded the death knell of the genre. It's not that it is a particularly bad film, it has some explosively good moments, particularly in the gunfight scenes, but Hawks isn't really on form in a film that wouldn't have posed any challenge to him thanks to the fact that he had effectively made it before already - twice (El Dorado is too familiar for it to be an accident), and it is rightly called his worst outing in the director's chair. Let's be honest, all a Western really needs (of this era anyway) is a strong sense of good and evil - personified in a worthy, if cantankerous protagonist and a fittingly villainous gang of baddies, and Rio Lobo strikes oil in both cases. But there isn't anything game changing about it, and it feels like the stagnating last hoorah for a Western that not even the film's director looks interested in continuing at this point. Wayne is still very good as Colonel Cord McNally (such a typical character name for him), blustering through his lines with swagger and bravado, in place of more modern quantifiers of acting skill, and really it is a wholly dependable performance from an actor who was obviously coming to the end of his career. The rest of the cast meanwhile aren't nearly as notable - gone are the usually glittering co-stars in favour of lesser talents like Christopher Mitchum and Jorge Rivero - and watching it as a Western fan today, it feels very much like the world of film has advanced away from this genre, leaving Wayne behind, still doing exactly as well in his performances in his earlier films, but working on a canvas that noone cares enough about any more to match his commitment with real talent or substance. Overall, Rio Lobo suffers because the goalposts were moved, and the film never paid any attention: in a market where True Grit had lamented the end of the Western by creating the first post-Western that personified what had cruelly began to be seen as the "bad old days" in the character of Rooster Cogburn. That should have been where John Wayne ended his career, celebrated as he was with an Oscar. But rather than put him out to graze, which might have been kinder, films like Rio Lobo sought to give the actor something to do while the world turned a different way. And there is definitely a tragic undertone because of that. Big Jake, released less than a year later is very much the same tale. It is little more than an opportunity for Wayne to continue doing what he does best, in a familiar environment, which is made even more comfortable for Wayne thanks to the presence of his sons Patrick and Ethan. Wayne plays yet another typically named hero - this time called Jacob McCandles - who enjoys a wonderfully appropriate introduction, in a sort of Best Man For The Job set-up that will have all fans of Wayne nodding in appreciation. Again, like Rio Lobo, the plot revolves around Wayne's man on a mission, this time to save a kidnapped child from a dastardly gang, shooting first, asking questions later and generally doing his best to advance the mythology of Wayne as the archetypical old cowboy. Big Jake is an improvement on Rio Lobo: for one it is more self-aware, as it positions him as a wirey old dog who refuses to adapt to modern methods, despite the obvious advancement of his surroundings and the prodding of his sons. But again it is hampered by poor direction, and a lack of real talent to offer some balance to Wayne, though it is nice to see him once again on screen (for the last time) with Maureen O'Hara with whom he shares an easy chemistry. In short, both are very much typical of late John Wayne films, and both sit in the trough after the career peak of True Grit - but they are both still enjoyable for fans of the genre (even if it was obviously dying) and for fans of Wayne himself. But are they worth buying in high-definition...?

Quality

In comparison to the recent re-release of Wayne's classic True Grit, Rio Lobo is very impressive, but that is only because it isn't full of the artificial processing that made robbed that particular high-definition transfer of any character or substance. Sadly, though the transfer doesn't look much better than the former DVD release, and there is little to suggest that it has been lovingly worked on to any massive degree, and in truth there isn't a great deal that qualifies it as high-definition releases. Some work has obviously been done, but the source is of that difficult age where it's hard to do too much without wiping off too much of the real detail with the dust, which is a shame as Paramount back catalogue releases are usually better than this. It isnt particularly bad-looking though, having said that - detail and texture aren't exactly perfect, but they at least haven't been wiped out with unnecessary DNR - while the level of film grain adds antiquity, but is the most obvious suggestion that little has been done to clean the films up for HD. It's uninspiring at best. Big Jake on the other hand is far more impressive as a high-definition release, which makes something of a mockery of the limitations of Rio Lobo. The film looks very good, despite its age, with particularly fine texture and detail, and there is still some grain intact to retain some character - colours are as natural as they can be in a film this old (which usually means they're over-saturated and decidedly orange throughout), but they are at least true to the original film. Strictly speaking, both Rio Lobo and Big Jake feel simply like releases aimed at John Wayne fans with a completist attitude to blu-ray purchasing. There isn't anything that really sets the blu-rays themselves out as essential or even particularly necessary releases, despite the increases in quality and I'm actually surprised they weren't lumped together with a few more titles to form a Wayne Blu-ray boxset, with a few minimal extra features. That would at least prick my interest a little more than these thread-bare releases, which struggle to convince that they are much better than the DVD versions. Buy them only if, like me, you like to own as many films as possible on blu-ray, so that your shelves have some uniformity. But don't expect to be amazed in any way.

Extras

Not a single flaming thing on either. Rio Lobo and Big Jake are both available to buy on blu-ray now.
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