Grade: B-/C+
Entire family: No
2017, 88 min., Color
Not Rated: Would be PG-13 for brief nudity, sexual situations and strong language
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 matted widescreen
Featured audio: English DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B- (nice making-of feature)
Includes: 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray
Amazon link

Timothy Woodward Jr. grew up loving Hollywood Westerns, and now he’s living the dream—he’s directing them. And he’s getting better.

Woodward’s first effort, Traded (2016), starred music legends Kris Kristofferson and Trace Adkins, both of whom look rugged enough to play a convincing cowboy in the American Wild West of the 1870s and ‘80s. Traded was basically a Western version of Taken, and though Westerns have more clichés than cacti have needles, this one was hemorrhaging hokey dialogue, wooden characters, and silly situations. It was hard going, which is why I’m not surprised it earned only a 5.1 out of 10 at the Internet Movie Database from over 2000 audience members. At Family Home Theater we warned it was a C- at best.

But then along comes Hickok (2017), which 600 IMDB audience members rated a 5.3. Seeing that, you’d think that the two films are comparable—but you’d be wrong. Hickok is a superior film, despite a script that fictionalizes ol’ Wild Bill so much you barely recognize him and his story. Then again, this is a Western, not a documentary, and for a Western it’s better than average.

For one thing, Luke Hemsworth is a charismatic and believable Hickok, despite a True Grit opening that has him riding into the teeth of the Confederacy with both barrels blazing—just a tad too heroic to be convincing, and also just plain wrong. Hickok served as a teamster, not regular army. The film’s main characters and conflicts are also, for the most part, fictionalized. Then again, as the most famous quote from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance reminds, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” If you can relax and accept Woodward’s Wild Bill Hickok as a fictional character,
you’ll find Hickok a tense and satisfying Western. But you do have to check your realistic expectations at the door. Woodward implies that Hickok’s first lawman job was in Abilene, but he had already built a reputation as a lawman by the time he took that job. And that’s only the tip of the fictional iceberg. But as a filmic character, this Wild Bill is a humdinger.

Throughout the course of the movie we see a surprising range of expressions and emotions from Hemsworth, who manages to walk the chalk line between realism and legend that his director had drawn. As a result, this particular incarnation of Hickok is a complicated man who is 50 shades of good and evil and everything in between. Hemsworth also plays opposite the rest of the cast with obvious relish, and that “chemistry,” let’s call it, serves the film well.

A bonus this time around is that Adkins is learning how to act. As hokey as he was in Traded, he nails it in Hickok as the marshal’s nemesis, the saloonkeeper Poe, whose business in Abilene, Kansas rises and falls based on whether he can “buy” the marshal and get him to strike up a working relationship. Kristofferson as the town mayor has a less hokey presence this time around too, and we know from his past credits that it was the material, not his performance in Traded, that was the problem. Toss in Bruce Dern as an old doctor and the likable Kaiwi Lyman-Mersereau as John Wesley Hardin and you’ve got a pretty solid Western cast.

Hickok falls at the high PG-13 end of family acceptability, though, with a number of scenes showing saloon “whores” and implied sexual relations, as well as one very brief and slightly blurred scene of frontal nudity seen from a distance. There’s language here too—enough to merit a cautionary rating all on its own. But Hickok realistically shows a woman’s options in the late 1800s Wild West, and the thin line between being a saloon “girl” and being a respectable “kept” woman.

Like so many Westerns—High Noon and Shane being the most famous—Hickok complicates a lawman’s attempts to keep order in town by introducing a woman and a boy into his life. Only the wrinkle here is that the woman (Cameron Richardson) is a widow with a son who’s engaged to Poe, and the boy clearly worships Hickok. It’s that second plotline that makes Hickok a PG-13 film that’s suitable for family viewing.

This 4K version shows the added brightness and color saturation possible with the new “higher definition,” though the Blu-ray is still quite good in terms of resolution. If you’re like me you’re taking a wait-and-see approach. We replaced VHS and DVDs. Are we really ready to commit to replacing Blu-rays just yet? I hope that Cinedigm and other studios continue to release 4K/Blu-ray combos so people don’t have to make that decision just yet.

Language: A dozen or so scattered swearwords
Sex: A woman is shown on top of a man, but both are dressed; bare breasts are shown slightly blurred and from a distance; other “whores” offer their services
Violence: The usual shoot-outs and fights
Adult situations: There is gambling and drinking
Takeaway: A script by Michael Lanahan seems to have made a huge difference, as this cast, with believable lines, is better than in Traded