Film Review: Hickok

Straightforward drama featuring "Wild Bill" Hickok is unlikely to impress theatre audiences but could come as a welcome surprise to genre fans on home-viewing platforms.
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1871, Kansas: Civil War veteran and legendary gunman James "Wild Bill" Hickok (Luke Hemsworth, older brother of Chris and Liam) rides into Abilene, a rough little town whose fortunes are tied to the cattle drives—newly flush cowboys looking for liquor and ladies play a major part in keep the local economy afloat. They also bring brawls, gunfights and other byproducts of hair-trigger tempers and weapons, so the local sheriff is guaranteed to have his hands full. Hickok, who's outgrown his own youthful rowdiness, is hired as to keep the peace, which he prefers to do through reason and preventative policing. But that's easier said than done when tempers are running hot and fingers are itching to take on the legendary fast draw.

Granted, it's hard to build any great suspense into the story of one of the Old West's classic narratives—the one about the principled new sheriff and the town full of drunken louts with macho standards to uphold. And while the real-life Hickok's story took some unusual turns, this portion of it is both familiar and the most widely known to the average moviegoer with a greatest-hits knowledge of the "Wild West." To their credit, screenwriter Michael Lanahan and producer/director Timothy Woodward, Jr. focus on character rather than shootouts and saloon stare-downs, and Woodward's cast—which includes veterans Kris Kristofferson and Bruce Dern, alongside country singers Trace Adkins and unfortunately named but talented child actor Hunter Fischer—acquit themselves admirably. There's not much room for sustained development, but all invest the stock figures they're playing with human touches.  

Woodward is clearly invested in exploring a West that's neither glorified nor reworked to conform with contemporary social and political positions—when Hickok institutes an unpopular ban on carrying sidearms within town limits, he's not anticipating 21st-century-style gun control. He's just responding to the near-impossibility of keeping Abilene's streets safe for ordinary citizens—shopkeepers, women, farmers, children—when they're overrun by pistol-packing drunks with no family or community ties to keep them in check. Reasonable enough.

That said, Woodward's 2016 Traded (which also featured Kristofferson and Adkins), a more interesting movie because its subject—19th-century sex-trafficking in the Western territories, long before the term was coined—remains a more interesting movie because the subject is less frequently addressed onscreen. Hickok's exploits have been so frequently and variously portrayed that anyone who gravitates towards the genre will already be intimately familiar with them.

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