Hard Ground = Hard Work
Having escaped from the prison wagon taking him to Yuma prison, Billy Bucklin (David Figlioli) sets about recruiting an army of criminals to help him control the Mexican border. And in order to finance his plans Billy and his gang ambush a stagecoach and kidnap young Elizabeth Kennedy (Amy Jo Johnson) to sell as a prostitute. But on their trail is a young deputy called Joshua (Seth Peterson) and behind him is aging Marshall Hutch (Bruce Dern) who has arranged for former bounty hunter and brother-in-law John McKay (Burt Reynolds) to get a pardon from his prison sentence to help in tracking and killing Billy. But is there another reason why Hutch has got McKay released from prison early?
I've watched a fair few Hallmark movies yet up until now the closest I've got to a Hallmark western is one of their soppy but enjoyable ranch romances. So I honestly didn't know what to expect when I sat down to watch the Hallmark western "Hard Ground" especially as it starred the unusual combination of Burt Reynolds and Bruce Dern. Was I going to get some mushy western which was heavy on romance, was I going to get some western heavy in sentimentality and moral messages or would I be surprised and get some great western full of violence and action. Well to be honest having watched "Hard Ground" I would say it's something in the middle as there is a touch of romance, a touch of sentimentality and a touch of western action. It's by no means a great western and compared to many big screen westerns "Hard Ground" ends up barely average, in fact at times it borders on being laughably wrong but for a Hallmark movie I was pleasantly surprised.
How to describe the storyline to "Hard Ground", well the easiest way is that it is the amalgamation of various cliches and story elements drawn from other greater westerns, although in fairness so many big screen westerns are the same. What we basically have in "Hard Ground" is the old cowboys tracking down a younger violent cowboy and his gang before they get too big and start controlling the Mexican border. And as such we have these old cowboys antagonising each other, reminiscing about the past and how they no longer fit in to the new West of 1901. Plus on top of this there is the expected romantic cliche thrown in for good measure as well. All of which plays along like pretty much every other western and you know that "Hard Ground" will end in a gun blazing final battle.
But it almost seems like these old cowboys, McKay and Hutch, and their tracking down of vicious cowboy Billy Bucklin isn't really that important. And the reason being is through out the entire movie we are forced and I do mean forced to try and work out what the relationship is between McKay and young tracker Joshua who is ahead of them. Is Joshua McKay's son, maybe a brother or other family member, or maybe someone that McKay has done wrong to in the past and is not that keen to catch up with. Trust me when all is revealed it's by no means a surprise as the whole guessing game is so heavy handed that almost every other scene we have Hutch and McKay mentioning the boy. It is one of the things which spoil "Hard Ground" as whilst it paves the way for the movie's moral, sentimental message you honestly don't care about it by the time things finally come to a head and we learn what is what.
Aside from the heavy handed sentimental message all the other western cliches are there including action which for a TV movie is quite impressive. Don't get me wrong as there is not a huge amount of action in "Hard Ground" and occasionally it feels over choreographed but there is a surprising brutality to it. Watching Billy Bucklin gun down a stage coach of innocents is surprising and whilst there is not a huge amount of visual violence, even in the big final fight, the perceived blood shed works remarkably well.
But unfortunately what doesn't work so well is the casting and to be honest the two young stars Seth Peterson as Joshua and Amy Jo Johnson as Elizabeth Kennedy deliver what I would call teen soap acting with them looking good but not delivering anything close to more than flat characters. And whilst David Figlioli attempts to make Billy Bucklin an evil, violent criminal the forced growl he gives the character far too often feels like he is trying to be Clint Eastwood. But the biggest problem comes from Burt Reynolds as McKay because it just didn't feel right, from the initial meeting when he is on a prison wagon through to the arduous trek I just didn't take to Burt Reynolds as this old cowboy, a former bounty hunter with a mysterious past. And whilst Bruce Dern as Hutch manages to make his character a typical western character the snappiness of the banter which goes between him and Reynolds never really snaps.
What this all boils down to is that when compared to other big screen westerns "Hard Ground" does come up very short and at times the forced story elements makes it almost laughable. But then for a TV movie and a Hallmark one at that it is surprisingly enjoyable, yes those problems still detract but the level of brutality is almost shocking and it does walk through the various western cliches in an assured manner.