Has Ron Howard Earned His Spurs?

Opie's homage to John Ford is better than a pig in a poke.

JOHN FORD'S 1956 Western The Searchers casts a long, cold shadow over our greatest directors. The stunning moral ambiguity of its themeracist outsider John Wayne's odyssey to rescue a niece kidnapped by Indianscentrally inspired Taxi Driver, and when Lucas and Spielberg want to lend tragic gravitas to a scene (Luke Skywalker discovering the murder of his aunt and uncle, the mother informed of her son's death in Saving Private Ryan), they employ overt visual quotes from The Searchers.

And now Ron Howard gives us The Missing, his own rescue saga set deep in Indian country. (It opens Wednesday, Nov. 26, at Pacific Place and other theaters.) No Opie jokes, please: Howard has made enough fine films by now to earn the right to try on Ford's big boots. It's not a remake, of course, but it is close enough to hold Howard to the highest standards of Western legend-building: Ford's. By those standards, he's a tenderfoot. Ron Howard equaling the master's visual genius, emotional subtlety, deep grief, sexual subtexts, epic reach? That'll be the day. And yet, The Missing is an honorable homage by a man who might just become a master one of these days.

The John Wayne-ish character in this fiction is Sam Jones (Tommy Lee Jones), an artist who ditched his family in 1865, lit out for the territory, and basically became a white Apache. When a rattler bit him, Apache religion obliged him to make amends to his family or live out his days under a curse. (In fact, the Apachesand the director of Parenthoodconsider any man who can't live up to fatherhood a luckless loser.)

So now it's 1885, and the grizzled "windian" Sam rides back to the New Mexico home of his daughter Maggie (Cate Blanchett). Her mom is dead, she's eking out a living as a tough-love healer, and, in a setup much like Peter Fonda's The Hired Hand, she's shacking up with ranch hand Brake (Aaron Eckhart). She won't marry him, because she's bitter about menfolk. Confronted by the more or less contrite Sam, she refuses to heal her hardened heart. She's as cussed as her pa is snakebite-accursed.

Then her headstrong daughter Lily (Evan Rachel Wood) gets abducted by the wicked witch of the West, the Indian shaman Chidin (Eric Schweig). She can't wait for the cavalry to ride to the rescue: The local lieutenant (Val Kilmer) is well-intentioned but forbidden to help by the dimwits higher upthe very authorities who radicalized the formerly peaceable shaman Chidin by stringing up his chief. "What were they thinkin'?" mourns the lieutenant. "What makes you think they were thinkin'?" growls Sam. The Searchers was a stark existential drama of individuals; earnest liberal Ron Howard gives us idealists threatened by the pissed-off underclass and thwarted by business interests and coldly pragmatic politicos.

So Maggie reluctantly accepts Sam's Fenimore Cooper-like help in tracking the kidnappers' posse, who will otherwise get off scot-free once they convey Lily and the other captive nubiles over the Mexican border to sell them as brides to men who likely leave toilet seats up, and worse. Lily's runty yet equally headstrong kid sister Dot (Jenna Boyd) insists on coming along on the mission, where her own life will be heroically endangered.

It's a convoluted chase, and lots of viewers will complain it's too long. Maybe, but that's exactly what The New York Times' Bosley Crowther said about The Searchers in 1956, and Boz was characteristically missing the point. It's good for a Western to have plenty of emotionally charged action (flash floods, fistfights, menaced virgins, dying babies, startling suicide, hairbreadth cave escapes, life-or-death horse races, ridgetop-to-canyon gunfights), especially when set in a New Mexico locale so spectacular and diverse that Spielberg used it to re-create the many planets seen in his TV series, Earth 2. Though Salvatore Totino's cinematography lacks the mythic sweep of Monument Valley magnified by Ford and cinematographer Winton Hoch, The Missing actually offers a wider variety of eye delights. Even arguably too-classic scenes like the flaming-arrow attackwhich Thomas Eidson, who wrote the book this film is based on, begged Howard to omit because they're too clichédjustify their existence in terms of color and drama.

The acting is almost uniformly first-rate. Howard is better at directing an ensemble of actors than Ford was, especially where women are involved. Blanchett is utterly convincing, except in one dumb scene where she falls under Chidin's voodoo spell. (The Missing would be better if all the mysticism were missing.) The irksome, arrogant Harvard uppitiness that cost Gore the White House works great for his old roommate Tommy Lee Jones on-screen: Sam comes off as a superior type who really is superior. His orneriness rhymes with his daughter's. The girls are just OK: Wood's role is too trussed-up to give her much to do, and Boyd's no more than a competent child actor.

Schweig, swathed in scar-face makeup like Tom Berenger's in Platoon, gives the shaman some evil verve, but he can't hold a magic candle to Max Perlich as his scary white kidnapper henchman. It's sad that Perlich's ugly mug has kept him from bigger roles: ever since Drugstore Cowboy, he's been the perfect embodiment of the nerd as monster.

The Missing is good, galloping entertainment. I doubt it will be snubbed by the Oscars, as The Searchers was. I also doubt it will grow into a legend that will shame critics and inspire the great directors of tomorrow. Howard manages to update Western tropes without making them eternal. The adventure has suspense without resonance. Here's the root problem: Ford made Wayne heroic, bad, and scarily ambiguousat the end, we don't know whether he'll save Natalie Wood or murder her. In The Missing, the heroes' sins are all very venial. Ron Howard will never stand as tall in the saddle as he could until he overcomes his fatal temptation to make everybody as nice as he is.


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