Picks and Pans Review: The Wild Bunch

updated 03/20/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/20/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

William Holden, Robert Ryan

Twenty-six years later, with 10 minutes restored to its now 145-minute length, director Sam Peckinpah's rugged, profoundly pessimistic epic about the final days of a band of robbers remains both the apotheosis and annihilator of the western. These films still get made, but no matter how many cavalry, cowboys or Indians go surging across the screen, subsequent movies are merely circumnavigating terrain mapped out by Peckinpah, who died in 1984. This is a vast valley of death, ringed in with a fence of bones.

In The Wild Bunch, set in Texas and Mexico in 1913, the time of Pancho Villa, outlaw Holden and his aging, frayed followers (Warren Oates, Frnest Borgnine and Ben Johnson) plan one last raid: stealing a shipment of munitions and handing them over, south of the border, to a generalissimo named Mapache (Emilio Fernandez). The robbery, a tautly spun sequence that climaxes with horses plunging from an exploding bridge, would probably be enough to make the movie a classic. But The Wild Bunch is most famous, or infamous, for its elaborately filmed shootouts. Peckinpah's repetitive slomo images of bodies hurling through the air and exploding with blood and viscera are familiar to us by now from action movies, where they usually serve as a director's assurance that an audience is getting its money's worth. Peckinpah's violence isn't above being orgiastic—please note the way Oates cradles that machine gun—but more often than not the effect is of a startling, dreamlike vividness. Peckinpah isn't glorifying violence, just giving it its due.

You may or may not be impressed by the story's carefully worked-out notions of honor among the damned. But it's impossible to fault any of the performances, especially those of Holden and Ryan, as the bounty hunter on Holden's trail. Here are two flinty yet desolate old men, each as likely to die of self-disgust as from a bullet. (R)

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