The Long Riders

Starring: Keith Carradine, David Carradine, Robert Carradine, James Keach, Stacy Keach, Dennis Quaid, Randy Quaid, Christopher Guest, Nicholas Guest

Director: Walter Hill
Released: 1980

Mood: If you had a bad day and want to blow off steam but doing physical activities is expensive and also takes too much effort so you’d rather watch three Hollywood dynasties do all the violence.

I discovered The Long Riders shortly after I discovered my love of Keith Carradine as a Western man.

I was watching Last Stand at Saber River. Suddenly, Carradine’s natural horsemanship and that smooth, rugged voice explained my weird attraction to him as a retired special agent in Dexter. I scoured the Interwebs in search of MOAR CARRADINE WESTERNS! 

The Long Riders is a f*cking jackpot. Seriously. Three Carradines, two Quaids, two Keaches, two Guests, and a partridge in a pear tree. How could you not NEED to see a Western about the infamous James-Younger Gang, stacked with that many acting families?! 

The best part is that it’s not a hollow gimmick – although it was a box office disappointment and met with “meh” reviews, screw the haters because this movie’s got teeth. I’ll admit it’s not an outstanding story (there are lots of movies about these same events, and not much new here), but The Long Riders excels in jaw-dropping action.

If you like awesomely violent fist fights and bloody shootouts, this one’s for you.

photo of The Long Riders DVD

The Long Riders follows the same well-known events as other Jesse James movies, although sticks more closely to the truth than most. It opens with a bank robbery. Jesse (James Keach) kicks Ed Miller (Dennis Quaid) out of the gang for reckless behaviour, then the gang breaks up to go their separate ways. 

There’s a lot of story-building for the Younger brothers in the early half of the movie, which some critics didn’t like. I was super into it, because I got to enjoy all that Carradine screen time. Plus, for once it’s not all about Jesse James

Cole Younger (David Carradine) visits his paramour, the notorious Belle Starr (Pamela Reed). Jim (Keith Carradine) flirts with Beth Mimms (Amy Stryker), the younger sister of Jesse’s soon-to-be bride Zee. Jesse and Zee get hitched, Cole continues to boink Belle (but keeps her at arm’s length), and Beth gets engaged to the outcast Ed Miller instead of Jim. 

Everyone is settled into a sort of normal life when they get the ol’ urge to be bad. Clell (Randy Quaid) picks out that famous bank in Northfield, MO, with Jesse’s support.

As we all know, that’s when shit hits the fan. Everyone except the James boys gets shot up. Then Jesse is all, “screw you guys, I’m out of here” and takes off with his reluctant brother Frank (Stacy Keach), leaving Cole, Jim, Clell, and Bob Younger (Robert Carradine) bleeding out and easy to capture. 

illustration of a fancy moustache

This is not the romanticized, sweetheart James-Younger Gang of movies like American Outlaws. Cole and Jim Younger are still charming, but the overall vibe is darker and meaner. 

These James brothers are curt and humourless. Stacy Keach played the quieter of the James brothers, but he brought more to his tone and each of Frank’s facial expressions than his brother gave his entire one-note performance as Jesse. 

Stacy also wins best moustache in The Long Riders, though it’s not much competition. In the first half of the movie everyone is clean-shaven except Frank and Cole. In the second half, it looks like they may have used moustache props on everyone else. 

David Carradine is what this whole movie is about. Cole Younger is the central character, but there’s more to it than that. Carradine’s leathery, squinty thing works SO WELL in Westerns. But the best thing he brings to The Long Riders is his physical prowess. 

In an impressive saloon fight with Sam Starr (James Remar) over Belle, you can see every bit of Carradine’s skills in boxing, martial arts, street fighting, and dance come into play. 

Keith Carradine’s Jim is slower to develop, but still strong. He starts with a sort of forlorn romantic storyline (broken up with that smart-ass wit he often plays), then plummets into violence when Bob is shot off the back of a horse next to him.

Literally, right off the back. I’m not even kidding, I rewatched it in slo-mo multiple times because holy shit, is that some impressive stunt work. 

And if you enjoy that, you get to see another guy go flying off his horse. 

I hope they paid their horsey stunt people well, because the major action scenes are just stacked with trick riding that had me cringing. I know exactly what it feels like to hit the ground off a horse at speed, and I usually only do that once a year. 

Everything else about the action sequences is on point, too. Bullets tear through people’s legs, arms, torsos, and even face (Keith Carradine) in glorious sprays of blood. Everything is slowed down, so you get to see every detail of the hit and the reaction. It’s super satisfying. 

The Quaids are both good. Dennis is almost quivering with anger and jealousy as Ed Miller, while Randy is more affable and redneck-y (so, classic Randy Quaid). I barely recognized Christopher Guest as Charlie Ford – to me he’ll always be The Six-Fingered Man.

The Long Riders is obviously the kind of movie you see if you’re a fan of the actors, or a connoisseur of James-Younger Gang stories. But it also packs a solid punch (pun intended) for fans of grittier, more violent Westerns. 

Random fun fact that I discovered all by myself: most of the actors except David Carradine were born almost exactly 100 years after the men they play in the movie.

Cole Younger 1844, David Carradine 1936
Jim Younger 1848, Keith Carradine 1949
Bob Younger 1853, Robert Carradine 1954
Jesse James 1847, James Keach 1947
Frank James 1843, Stacy Keach 1941

I am that kind of nerd who finds this extremely cool.

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