Written and Directed by Wes Miller
Produced by Curtis Nichouls/Henry Penzi/Sasha Yelaun
Music by Sid De La Cruz/Savannah Latham
Cinematography by Michael Brouphy
Edited by Rowan Maher
In the space of a decade give or take two or three years, Bass Reeves has gone from being the most famous lawman of The Old West you never heard of to being a genuine icon of heroism. I went most of my life without hearing once of Bass Reeves even though I’ve been a lifelong fan of Westerns. But it wasn’t until Captain Ron Fortier of Airship 27 told me about Bass Reeves that I became acquainted with him. Ron himself had been trying for years to interest various comic book companies in a Bass Reeves graphic novel with no luck. You would think that comic book companies, TV series production companies and film studios would jump at the chance to relate the adventures of the first black U.S. Deputy Marshal who during her years of service arrested 3000 felons. The life and career of Bass Reeves is too long and varied for me to go into here but I recommend that you buy or borrow Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves by Art T. Burton which is considered to be pretty much the definitive biography of Bass Reeves. And on Amazon Prime there’s a series called Gunslingers. One of the episodes is all about Bass Reeves and I highly recommend both the book and that TV episode.
The two of them will tell you more about Bass Reeves than HELL ON THE BORDER. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a sincere effort but the lack of a budget and a script that leans toward making Bass Reeves a supporting character in his own movie disappointed me greatly and provided for a somewhat unsatisfying Bass Reeves movie.
Bass Reeves (David Gyasi) is a posseman working for the white Marshal Franks (Chris Mullinax) who uses Bass to do the dirty work while he collects the bounties. One of these dirty jobs is capturing the outlaw Charlie Storm (Ron Perlman) who seems more like a harmless drunk than a ruthless, feared outlaw.
An outlaw who is ruthless and feared is Bob Dozier (Frank Grillo) who sends the head of the last U.S. Marshal sent to get him to Judge Isaac Parker (Manu Intiraymi) with a warning that Judge Parker best lay off trying to bring Bob Dozier to justice. None of the Marshals are willing to go after Dozier. Bass Reeves isn’t a Marshal but he strikes a deal with Judge Parker: if Bass brings in Dozier, he’ll be made a Marshall. Bass is willing to go after Dozier on his own but Judge Parker forbids it. The only one who is willing to assist Bass and be his posseman is Charlie Storm in exchange for a pardon.
So what we have here is an origin story for Bass Reeves as he has to prove himself worthy to wear the badge of a U.S. Marshal. Now, from what I’ve read in Burton’s biography, the relationship between Bass Reeves and Judge Parker is nothing like the relationship they have in this movie. But then again, the motivations of the other (white) characters are understandable and laid out pretty well for us to comprehend. David Gyasi tends to just stand around glowering at the other actors and mutters a line or two of dialog that is supposed to be profound and meaningful but really doesn’t provide any insight into why Bass wants to be a U.S. Marshal or why he is so dedicated to the law. Frank Grillo (the guy who really should have been “The Punisher” on Netflix) isn’t much of an adversary for Bass as we never really see why Dozier is supposed to be such a feared outlaw. We keep hearing that he is but we never see him do anything to earn such a fearsome reputation, except for the head incident. There’s a puzzling scene where Dozier and his men come across two men and a woman digging a grave for for a dog and they turn out to be Frank and Jesse James with Belle Starr. The James boys and Belle Starr have heard of Dozier but treat him as a joke and easily intimidate him. The scene should have been written the other way around because unless Dozier is a sincere threat, then Bass triumphing over him really doesn’t mean much, does it?
David Gyasi does his best and indeed he does a good job with showing the seriousness and intensity of Bass Reeves at doing his job. This guy was like the Batman of his day because if you were a badman and he had a warrant for your arrest, that was yo’ ass, plain and simple. And David Gyasi gets that across, no doubt. But he’s also too short and slim of build to project the physical menace of Bass Reeves who was indeed a big, intimidating man of remarkable strength.
The movie belongs to Ron Perlman which really isn’t a surprise because anytime he’s in a movie, it belongs to Ron Perlman, period. David Gyasi is a solid actor but he’s not enough of a presence to take a scene away from Perlman. Now, to give Perlman his due, he realizes that he’s a supporting character and doesn’t go out of his way to steal every scene he’s in and in fact, this is a fairly subdued Ron Perlman performance in comparison to some of his others. But he just can’t help but fill the screen when he’s in the scene because he’s Ron Perlman and he’s that good.
So should you see HELL ON THE BORDER? I honestly can’t recommend that you spring for the rental fee. I did so because of my interest in Bass Reeves which has led me to write three stories for the Bass Reeves, Frontier Marshal anthology series published by Airship 27. The lack of a decent budget means that this is a decidedly cheap looking movie. The definitive great Bass Reeves movies has yet to be made and it’s not HELL ON THE BORDER. That’s not to say it’s a worthless movie. There’s a sincerity in the performances I appreciated and applaud. But it’s still a disappointment.