When a big film like "Silverado" (citywide) doesn't carry that spark that assures it a place with the great Westerns of memory, the worry at first is that the problem is us. Clearly it's a movie made with obvious affection for the form, with ferociously good actors and with every detail of its production lovingly crafted.
What in the name of heaven do audiences in the 1980s want from the Western? I suspect we still want indelible memories: pain at the loss of a simple, good man (Sam Peckinpah's "Ride the High Country"); a breathtaking vision of what life--and death--must really have been like on the frontier (Robert Altman's "McCabe and Mrs. Miller") or the country and its men at their most mythic (George Stevens' towering "Shane").
There is poignancy to a great Western, and often as not it grows out of loss. "Silverado" is correct and it's fun; it has lovely characters and intricate, imaginative plotting, but it's a little too cooled-out to dare the real devastation that loss would bring.
Instead, producer-director Lawrence Kasdan (also co-writer with his brother Mark) shifts its focus--he sees the West as a place where each character seeks his or her own kind of family, and Kasdan lightens the search with deadpan humor.
The main family grouping forms before our eyes, a raffish, motley new Wild Bunch who cross paths and unite on their way to Silverado. There are a pair of brothers, rowdy, irrepressible young Jake (Kevin Costner) and brooding loner Emmett (Scott Glenn). Besides looking eerily alike, the brothers have each had intimate and recent knowledge of jails: One has been Emmett's home for five years, and Jake is clapped into another just before we meet him. They are on their way to Silverado to say goodby to their sister and her family before moving on to California.
Then there is Mal (Danny Glover), on his way back home to see his mother (we only need to hear that phrase to know her fate). His sister Rea (Lynn Whitfield) has already fallen into bad ways in Silverado. Mal, whose black cowboy was a very real character in the settling of the West, has become isolated and extremely proficient with a rifle as he battles racists as well as land grabbers.
And finally there is rusty-bearded Paden (Kevin Kline), who will not become involved. He might be called unpredictable except that it's a cinch to predict his weakness: He'll go straight to the side of the underdog and what used to be called "the little man." The Kasdans turn that one owlishly literal--Kline already has served a jail term over a wounded dog, and his growing attachment is to the splendid Stella (Linda Hunt), 4-foot-9 queen of Silverado's Midnight Star saloon.
There is a huge roll call of villains, but principal are Cobb (Brian Dennehy), Silverado's sheriff and the owner of Stella's beloved Midnight Star; McKendrick (Ray Baker), from whom Dennehy takes orders, and the blue-eyed, deadly Tyree (Jeff Fahey, electrifying in a minor role). You might hate the dastardly McKendricks more if you knew a mite more about the clan, other than their blanket nasty deeds. (It feels as though trims have weakened the continuity here.)
Lurking far too far on the outside is Rosanna Arquette in a drastically truncated role as a sturdy, would-be settler (the McKendricks certainly do oppose settling). John Cleese can be seen, briefly and jarringly, as the sheriff who has jailed Kevin Costner, and Jeff Goldblum is a showy and faintly inexplicable gambler named Slick.
Juicy bits of action in and around Santa Fe dot the complicated narrative: a cattle stampede; trickery by which less than a handful of men must outsmart an armed, well-placed bunch of outlaws; a disastrous fire, a kidnaping and epic duels, including a final spectacular one on horseback. John Bailey's camera takes us right in close for most of the action; this is an intimate epic, not a panoramic one.
Of all the stories, it is Kline's and Hunt's that's the richest. Kline's natural habitat has nothing whatever to do with the sage and the tumbleweed. Let him into a nice, noisy, smoky bar and his heart soars and his lungs expand. Hunt loves the Midnight Star, where she has built a ramp behind the bar which makes her the physical equal of the place's raggle-taggle clientele--since she's already their calm superior, it seems only fitting. These two delicately resourceful actors play out a warm and wary game of growing attraction that is the film's most interesting invention.
Each of the actors has his day and his strength: Costner (cut out of "The Big Chill" entirely when the pivotal character of Alex became only a dressed corpse) seems to burst from the screen, endearingly randy, an unquenchable hell-raiser. Scott Glenn is more relaxed than we've ever seen him, and he's even stronger for it. Glover gives Mal enormous presence, warmth and a dry humor.