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When the Civil War broke out, Texas’ only lawmen, the Texas Rangers, disbanded to fight for the Confederacy. In their absence, Texas was overrun by the Bandits—a motley assembly of American outlaws and Mexicans bent on pillage and plunder. By the time the war ended, one Bandit, John "King" Fisher and his men had stolen a million cows and killed 400 Texans. In 1875, the Texas governor re-commissioned the Rangers and called upon them to reclaim lost property and rebuild Texan dignity.
Leander McNelly is no greenhorn when it comes to patrolling the range. Both a Ranger and a preacher before the War, he returns from the battlefield to discover that his wife and children have been kidnapped by Bandits. Downtrodden and ill with tuberculosis, McNelly doesn’t expect to live through the winter. He at first resists the governor’s requests that he enlist as a captain with the new Rangers. Eventually he shoulders what he knows is his final responsibility: leading a rag-tag band of officers against Fisher in the Nueces strip, just north of the Rio Grande.
McNelly’s ragamuffin troop is made up of orphans and ex-soldiers with nothing to lose. Many, including McNelly’s scribe, Lincoln Gunnison, have seen their families killed by Bandits. McNelly’s expectations are low. "Scant training. Weakness with weapons. Expect desertions along the way. Expect most of these boys will not survive," is his report to the governor. Still, McNelly reigns over his brigade with the skill of a true leader. Together, they exact justice—Ranger-style. Texas Rangers is based on the book Taming of the Neuces Strip: The Story of McNelly's Rangers by George Durham.
positive content: This film’s foremost lesson is that there is a difference between justice and vengeance. The distinction is not made out to be easy. Since most of the Rangers have been personally affected by the murderous acts of the Bandits, the temptation to get revenge is real. Sometimes their anger gets the best of them. But Captain McNelly’s final line says it best: "When they remember us Rangers, let them remember us not as men of vengeance, but as men of law and justice."
Leaders who are men of integrity are sadly lacking in recent Hollywood fare. Not so with Texas Rangers. Leander McNelly is willing to take ultimate responsibility for the men under his command. For example, a recruit turns on McNelly and tries to kill him for bounty. Rather than blaming the near-miss on Dunnison (who had allowed the traitor into McNelly’s tent) the captain takes responsibility for hiring the man. He also uses the opportunity to affirm Dunnison and calls him to renew responsibility rather than succumb to fear and shame.
McNelly is not perfect, but he is consistently focused on doing what is right. When his judgment fails, he is open to correction. In one poignant scene, McNelly wants to kill a woman who has naïvely acted as an informer for the Bandits. Dunnison respectfully defies him, shielding her with his body and telling his captain, "What she did was to save her family. Captain, show [them] the difference between [the Bandits] and us." Rather than reacting pridefully, McNelly shows her mercy. Later (and presumably as a result of this incident), he calls Dunnison "a soldier fit to lead."
Though the Rangers are rough riders, a clear line is drawn between them and another band of ranchers set on "riding south to kill Bandits." McNelly makes it clear that only the government has the right to bring justice on the outlaws. He upholds this Romans 13 principle and the Second Amendment by telling the angry mob, "Men, you can keep your guns to protect your homes. But that means go home. . . .The governor’s commissioned the Rangers. If you want to protect your land, you can apply for hire with me." The film also aims to right the wrongs of some old Westerns by showing how a young Ranger of African descent becomes a rifleman on his own merit, rather than being relegated to the devalued post of scout.
spiritual content: McNelly was a pastor before he went to war. As a Ranger, he struggles with how spiritual shepherding fits in with his current assignment. One gets the feeling that this is an important struggle, but that the filmmakers and actors didn’t know how to develop it. McNelly finds spiritual sensitivity incompatible with violent forms of justice, but his internal debate is not fleshed out. What little resolution he finds is positive: he asks to be buried with his Bible.
Coughing fitfully and aware of his own mortality, McNelly says, "The Lord is coming for me, Mr. Dunnison." To which Dunnison replies, "Sir, then why ride [with the Rangers]?" McNelly answers, "I figure it’s better that I walk to meet Him."
George Durham, a Missouri redneck with a bent for the philosophical, tells Dunnison, "This is the Lord’s country. She’s been here a long time before us. She’ll be here a long time to come."
sexual content: One woman is shown in a low-cut dress and later in a short nightgown. It is implied that she is raped by Fisher. An officer makes a crude comment about Dunnison’s inability to ride a horse properly. At one point, Durham jumps into a bathtub with Dunnison, but as he’s goofing off and still wearing his trousers, homosexuality is not implied (even though a passing girl gives them a strange look).
violent content: In the tradition of Western films, this movie is not gory, but the body count is very high. Hand-to-hand and rifle-to-rifle combat result in many deaths on both sides of the battle. A handful of men are hanged. Some are stabbed. Horses get shot and throw their riders. Houses are plundered and explosives are thrown into the Bandits’ fort. Dunnison watches as both his parents and his brother are shot at close range. He survives only because his brother’s body falls on top of him.
crude or profane language: At least two s-words and about a dozen other profanities. God’s name and Jesus’ are both misused several times. Most grating, the villain taunts the preacher-turned-Ranger: "Go with God, McNelly, if the son of a b--ch will have you."
drug and alcohol content: McNelly drinks whisky to kill the pain of his tuberculosis.
conclusion: With all the hoopla surrounding Monsters, Inc., Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and other holiday fare, the makers of Texas Rangers didn’t think enough of their own film to even screen it for the press. It’s that forgettable. But teen favorites Ashton Kutcher (That 70s Show) and James Van Der Beek (Dawson’s Creek) may pull in a substantial teen audience nonetheless. That being the case, it’s too bad Texas Rangers fails to live up to the enormous potential found in its noble themes. Recent events have underscored the need to discern the difference between revenge and justice. This film could have been a timely discussion starter on this subject. Except that it’s so . . . mediocre. The script delivers good points and prompts some great questions. Unfortunately, the dialogue is often stilted and the acting leaves much to be desired. A high fatality rate and some foul language seals the fate of a film that’s just not quick enough on the draw.
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James Van Der Beek as Lincoln Rogers Dunnison; Dylan McDermott as Leander McNelly; Ashton Kutcher as George Durham; Rachael Leigh Cook as Caroline Dukes; Usher Raymond as Sipio; Leonor Varela as Perdita