The Shooter
(a.k.a. Deadly Shooter)


Director: Fred Olen Ray       
Michael Dudikoff, Randy Travis, Valerie Wildman

One thing I can't understand is why makers of B-movies these days seldom venture into the western genre. Yeah yeah, there is the obvious fact that audiences these days don't seem to be as hungry for westerns as they were a few decades ago... though as I've pointed out before, there have been significant turn-outs the few times a good western has arrived in theaters these past few years. And westerns made-for-cable have been delivering solid ratings during this period as well. Plus, the western genre offers many advantages for those often cash-strapped B-movie producers. For one thing, there's thousands of acres of magnificent landscape with little to no hassle to get permission to shoot on. Not only can Mother Nature can look like a million bucks and instantly increase the look of your movie, but you are often far away from nosy union representatives as well. Scenes that take place in towns? No problem; there are still some old western town sets standing, and with few westerns being shot these days, it's likely you can rent them cheaply. And some incidentals like period clothing can be reasonably replicated or found cheaply as well. But what about essential personnel, like directors or (most importantly) actors with at least a passable amount of star value? Actually, such people also wouldn't be very hard to get a hold of. From what I've read in magazines and seen on TV programs over the years, there are a number of directors and stars who would love to be part of a western but seldom get the chance. So eager, that they are often willing to take a lower salary in order to have an opportunity.

In fact, when you think about it, the western genre offers exploitation filmmakers oodles of opportunities to pile on the gratuitous elements, since it was an era of great lawlessness. In fact, I've read the crime rate was a lot higher then than it is today. And why not; the west was filled with assorted robbers, murderers, rapists, and other people of a criminal nature. You can easily pack a western with those kind of people and their activates from range wars to claim jumping and get away with it by explaining "that's how it was back then." And it's just as easy to excuse the sweet things these people bring with them into the story that are of an exceedingly destructive nature - stuff like shotguns and dynamite. There is also a lot to be mined from the sexual side of the west as well. There were plenty of lonely (and horny) schoolmarms, but even better were the loads of prostitutes and brothels that could be found even in the smaller of towns. So it's kind of surprising that exploitation filmmakers haven't made more westerns, and it's equally surprising that B-movie director Fred Olen Ray (Dinosaur Island) waited until 1997 to make a western, The Shooter. He managed to round up a number of name actors to be in it: Michael Dudikoff (The Silencer), country star Randy Travis, and seasoned B-movie veterans like Robert Quarry, (Count Yorga, Vampire), William Smith (Run, Angel, Run), and Andrew Stevens (of the Night Eyes series.)

Stevens not only acts in The Shooter, but also served as one of the producers, a fact which will no doubt alarm a lot of readers in the know. For those who don't know, in his spare time Stevens once acted as producer on a number of movies made by the infamous Franchise Pictures The Shootercompany, makers of countless big-budget crapfests like Battlefield Earth and 3000 Miles To Graceland. Of course, the presence of Dudikoff and Olen Ray don't exactly help to ease any fears, even if not all of their movies have been crapfests (low-budget, in these cases.) But since they are all working in a genre new for all of them, it's only fair to give them all another chance. Set several years after the American Civil War, the movie takes place in and around the small desert community of Kingston. For years the area has been controlled by a gang of outlaws lead by Jerry Krants (Smith), but the citizens have silently accepted that fact since the gang seems willing to do little that's bad towards the town if the citizens leave them alone. Though one day outside of town, Jerry's son Vince ties up and whips local prostitute Wendy (Wildman, Days Of Our Lives) because... well, it's never made clear, but it just seems that he likes to kidnap and whip people. As he's whipping Wendy, ex-soldier Michael Atherton (Dudikoff) happens to ride by during his aimless drifting, and blows Vince and his buddies away. Of course, the eventual news of this upsets Jerry considerably, and Michael not only finds himself in danger, but sees the uneasy safety of Kingston's citizens quickly slipping away - and ultimately from more than just the obvious threat heading his way.

At one point, Andrew Stevens' dime-store novelist character comments on his collection of stories by saying, "Seems like every great story's already been told." This line could very well have been a veiled comment from this movie's screenwriter, because The Shooter is almost entirely a patchwork of elements and various plot points seen before in other westerns. (Spoilers ahead - that is, if they can really be considered spoilers.) We have a town full of spineless citizens and policed by an ineffectual sheriff. There's a woman in the town that's not only the dependable hooker with the heart of gold, but also plays the role of the woman who soon falls for the stranger despite having some hostile feelings towards him at the beginning. The stranger is eventually captured and beaten by the evil gang, but is secretly rescued and carted away to be healed in a secure place, just like in A Fistful Of Dollars. The stranger's hands are crippled by the gang and he has to find a new way to shoot, just like in Django. There are a lot more deja vu-scenes and elements than those, and it's frankly quite amazing that there actually is some originality to be found, coming from Randy Travis' mysterious gambler character. Though the various twists to the story that happen because of his character's doing are somewhat mild at best, they at least get the story to momentarily travel in a few directions you may not expect, even if the eventual destinations the paths hit happen to be the same.

A western that decides to follow a familiar formula isn't necessarily a bad western. Several years ago I saw the Kevin Costner western Open Range, which was essentially a retread of the old "standing up against the evil megalomaniac ranch boss" plot. While the story was nothing new, and the story was a bit too stretched-out this time out, it was otherwise well done in every other aspect, from acting and dialogue all the way down to locations and sets. When you look at those same attributes in The Shooter, you'll generally find that while there really isn't that much to be found you can call terrible, there's certainly a lot that can be considered mediocre or uninspired. Take the acting, for instance. Now, I have to admit that there is one exceptional performance among all the actors, and surprisingly it belongs to Travis. Although he is burdened by having to wear a particular cowboy hat that frankly looks quite ridiculous on him, Travis overcomes this with a performance that is full of confidence. He is very relaxed and seems quite at home on the range, which is more than you can say about the other actors. The visibly aged William Smith seems very tired and frankly a little confused, and sadly it seems to be because of that advancing age of his and not for any lack of enthusiasm about the movie. Dudikoff is Dudikoff as always, though since the script makes him yet another soft-spoken and little-speaking gunfighter, his lack of acting talent is truthfully less visible than it usually is. Everybody else is simply forgettable in their performances, neither incredibly good or bad to linger in your mind afterwards.

Besides the few diversions the Randy Travis character causes because of his actions, the screenplay does occasionally give us something that we may not be expecting. In movies like this, the reaction of someone to the death of a loved one is usually that of great anger and being dead-set on vengeance. When Jerry Vance is confronted with the sight of his dead son, he is certainly angry and wanting revenge, but we do get to see him cry and express anguish first. Though he puts up a stony face right afterwards, we see now and then he is still inside mourning the loss of his son, as in the scene where he slaps one of his underlings for what seems to him to be taking Vince's death "lightly". The townspeople also seem to be a little smarter than usual. They actually don't think that their ignoring of Jerry's gang is doing them any good or is the best thing for them at this point. They more or less confess to Michael at one point (while asking for his help) they made a mistake and they can't seem to figure a way out. And Travis' character makes a nice observation when he later tells Michael that the town doesn't care for him any more than any poor fool - they just want him to do their dirty work for them. There are also a few humorous moments, such as how Stevens' character rushes up to any brewing conflict with a notebook and pencil in hand so he can document it.

But for every little bright spot in the writing like these, there's at least one badly-conceived idea that drags the movie back down to the same basic level of mediocrity found in the rest of the screenplay. Take that inevitable part of the movie when Wendy falls in love with the mysterious gunfighter. The only logical reaction any reasonably-minded viewer can have to this is: why? He's hardly said a word to her by this point, and none of his actions could possibly suggest to her that he feels particularly fond of her. Of course, there's a real reason why she has to fall in love with him, and that's so there can be an emotional stake in the climax, where - yup, she's kidnapped. The whole kidnapping plan, by the way, is utterly unbelievable, ludicrously complicated and assuming Michael will blindly follow along and not think of a number of obvious ways to turn the odds in his favor. (Which is in fact what does happens, by the way.) Then there is the part of the movie which comes to a dead halt so that we can watch two incidental characters have totally gratuitous sex for a few minutes, which might not have been so bad had they been even remotely attractive while nude. Breasts and buns are seen in this scene, explaining the movie's R rating since the rest of the movie stays strictly at a PG level - no bullet wounds or blood seen when someone is shot, no real foul language that I can recall, and certainly no other scenes of sex or nudity. Clearly, Fred Olen Ray made the movie in a way that could easily be edited for commercial broadcast, which may have ensured food on his table, but leaves us starved for entertainment.

As of this date, Ray has directed over 100 (!) low-budget movies, which at the very least has given him enough experience as to how to stretch a dollar to near the breaking point. This is no doubt why many aspects of The Shooter look better than you'd expect, slickly photographed and lit for one thing. Ray managed to get hold of a nice-looking western town set, the interiors aren't too bad-looking, and he populates each (when appropriate) with enough extras in the background so the surroundings don't feel sparse. Strangely, the parts of the movie that have a serious cheap feel are actually the ones out in the wilderness far from anything man-made. Perhaps it's because these outdoor locations don't showcase Mother Nature at her best. In fact, they appear to be the same locations Ray used three years earlier in Dinosaur Island (which, by the way, was shot on David Carradine's ranch.) But the worst part of Ray's direction - and the prime reason why the movie doesn't work - is his uninspired direction. Everything, from shootouts to conversations, is shot in a workman fashion that in no way suggests Ray was feeling passionate about making the movie. The Shooter is more like product than 93 minutes of entertainment, and it's a product that even readers of that dime-store novelist would find drab and pointless to view.

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See also: Have A Good Funeral...,The Silencer, Will Penny