Borgnine and Van Dien get Railroaded
Whilst westerns are no longer the popular genre that they once were they are still my favourite genre, but that sadly means that whilst I have watched a lot of good even great westerns I have watched plenty of bad ones. And sadly whilst the occasional western which gets made these days tend to be something special there are still those bad ones which crop up such as TV movie "Aces 'N' Eights". The trouble with "Aces 'N' Eights" is not that it works through a very cliche western storyline with cliche characters but that it has no heart. It is in many ways the equivalent of one of those 50s westerns which got churned out on a regular basis but lacking the star quality to make it at least average, with only Ernest Borgnine actually managing to bring anything close to character to his performance.
With times changing a group of ranchers find themselves coming under increasing pressure from the railroad company to sell up and if they don't sell up a group of cowboys lead by the evil Tate (Jeff Kober) will make sure that life isn't pretty. One such rancher is Thurmond Prescott (Ernest Borgnine - A Grandpa for Christmas) who along with his men Monty (Rodney Scott) and Luke Rivers (Casper Van Dien) are determined not to be bullied off their land. But Luke finds himself having to confront his past as he use to be a gunfighter, especially when a face from his past D.C. Cracker (Bruce Boxleitner - The Babe) shows up to work for Tate.
Knowing that "Aces 'N' Eights" is a TV movie you make certain allowances, you know that it won't be the most visually stunning movie you will ever see and you also know that the storyline won't be something that amazing. And to be honest the storyline is as cliche as they come as we have ranchers fighting to keep hold of their land as a bad man at the railroad company try to bulldoze them into selling. It means that we have a group of bad guys working for a corrupt railroad official making life miserable for those ranchers who hold out especially aging Thurmond Prescott. And just to be more cliche his right hand man Luke Rivers use to be a gunfighter but has given up his killing ways and so comes face to face with someone from his past. All of this is very obvious and you know that by the end of the movie it will be about Luke going for his gun to take on the bad guys.
Now it's not all bad as whilst there is also a cliche romantic element between Luke and school teacher Jo Tanner you also have the arrival of upright a railroad official who just wants to broker a peaceful deal without the use of violence, slightly naive to how corrupt things are. It adds something a little different to this stock storyline and distracts when everything starts to become boring because it is so obvious.
But the trouble with "Aces 'N' Eights" is that it has no heart and basically feels like it is working through the western play book. It means that when it comes to moments of action the actual drama of it, such as Luke getting injured never comes across as they're replaced by limp violence. And the same can be said of "Aces 'N' Eights" when it comes to relationships as whilst you wonder what Luke's relationship is to Jo and also young Noah who comes to work on the ranch it never becomes more than just an expected element thrown in because that is what you get from a western. If the ambiguity of certain relationships was focussed upon as well as the closeness between Luke, Thurmond and Monty it would have made things 10 times better.
A big reason why you don't get the focus on the various relationships is because every single character is a 2 dimensional cliche. Luke Rivers has that air of mystery about him as a man with a secret past whilst Tate is a remorseless murderer who enjoys killing both men and women. But it also doesn't help matters that almost all of the actors fail to bring their characters to life sticking to the cliche and leaving them 2 dimensional and in the case of Casper Van Dien as Luke Rivers when he suddenly slips on an Eastwood style poncho becomes a laughable cliche. The only exception in a cast which also includes Bruce Boxleitner, William Atherton and Deirdre Quinn is Ernest Borgnine who at least makes Thurmond Prescott a man with character and quirks. It's by no means a good performance from Borgnine but at least he understands the character and does his best to make him more than just a cliche.
What this all boils down to is that whilst you make certain allowances for TV Movies when it comes to "Aces 'N' Eights" there is just too many issues to ignore. It doesn't matter that in many ways it is a stock western tale of the sort which once dominated the big screen because it is a tale which can work. But the lack of heart, 2 dimensional characters and elements of cheese as it tries to imitate greater westerns just spoil it. It is sort of ironic that whilst not one of his greatest performances it is Ernest Borgnine who delivers the best performance in a movie which is crying out for a bit of heart.