Desperate Trail, The

The shadows of spaghetti Westerns maestro Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah loom large over the imagery of The Desperate Trail, a new oater with a strong heroine played by eccentric actress Linda Fiorentino. Tale's quality and its characters never match helmer P.J. Pesce's technical savvy, speedy pacing, and thrilling shoot-outs. Despite splashy directorial debut, lack of narrative originality and uneven writing will keep enthusiasm at a moderate level. There are also serious questions whether Turner Pictures will air the Western on TNT, or just send it straight to video.

There's little doubt that Pesce has talent to burn, but it's also clear that he's a more proficient director than writer. You wish Pesce's penchant for grand, operatic style were matched by a truly fresh narrative, instead of the second-rate tale that is presented as a "feminist" Western, though in actuality it's not revisionist.

Fiorentino is felicitously cast as Sarah, a tough, foul-mouthed woman who is being escorted by Marshall Speakes (Sam Elliott) to the nearest town, where he plans to hang her for killing a young man who was sexually abusive. Sharing their stagecoach is a mousy older woman, whose bullying hubby gave her a black eye, and Jack, a young man (Craig Sheffer) clutching a "mysterious" box in his lap.

As the stagecoach rides through New Mexico, vivid memories of John Ford's 1939 masterpiece, Stagecoach, come to mind, though this as well as other references to classic Westerns are rather formal and stylistic as Desperate Trail doesn't have the in-depth characterization and tensions that prevailed in them.

As the story unfolds, it turns out that the man Sarah killed was Speakes' son, which means that his obsessive pursuit may be more a matter of personal vendetta than justice restored. As scripter, Pesce entertains the idea of a good lawman turned evil, but Speakes comes across as a mechanically constructed type or icon. Similarly, the realization that Sarah is basically a decent woman, and the contrast between the "good" and "bad" brothers are all familiar notions.

Structured as a caper, Desperate Trail displays the requisite twists and turns and holds many some effective moments. It's a mouse-and-cat chase in which the roles of captors and captives are often reversed.

The acting, however, is not as uniformly high as one would expect. Elliott projects his usual macho bravado, but his performance is quite monotonous. Fiorentino and Sheffer acquit themselves better with straightforward, natural performances, greatly assisted by some sharp dialogue.

What the film has going for it are three rousing set pieces, beginning with the stagecoach's holdup and continuing with shoot-outs that would make Sergio Leone proud. Displaying a sustained tempo, most of the action flies fast, hurtling the audience along with it. Editor Johnson shrewdly keeps the pace zipping, seldom allowing the story to sag in its more sentimental moments.

Helmer Pesce should also be commended for his well-orchestrated, strikingly shot and framed climax, a corker that provides both dramatic and visual satisfaction, keeping the picture at least two cuts above the usual Hollywood Western.