The Dalton Gang Rides into Hell in Uncork'd's Death Alley

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Death Alley

Once the undisputed King of Hollywood, the Western, that chest-thumping, two-fisted, oh-so-American cinematic ode to Manifest Destiny, fell into disarray towards the end of the 1970’s. Long past its mid-century heyday, the one-time silver-screen stalwart had experienced a surge in the previous decade due to a new, realistic approach to storytelling, but a combination of cultural factors—burnout from the war in Vietnam, drugs, struggles for social equality, the advent of dazzling special effects, new types of male icons—made the Western seem as antiquated as the Pony Express. Clichéd, predicable plots and tired stock characters withered in the face of burgeoning ’80’s theater extravaganzas. In the wake of Luke Skywalker and Indiana Jones, Rocky, Rambo and Schwarzenegger du jour, how could any simple cowpoke possibly hold his own down at the local bijou?

Ever since the genre’s reported demise, any endeavor to resuscitate it is met with a furious combination of nostalgia, curiosity and dread. In the past four decades, straight-forward Westerns have become rare creatures, and for any filmmaker seeking to journey upon that lonesome trail it’s become much safer economically to mix standard high-noon drama with other genres to create more profitable hybrid breeds: the sci-fi antics in Back to the Future Part III and Cowboys and Aliens, the horror-western hijinks of Ravenous, The Burrowers and Bone Tomahawk, the over-the-top aggression of Django Unchained and The Revenant. For every Unforgiven, Tombstone or The Quick and the Dead that seeks to revitalize the Western to its past prime, there’s a Young Guns II, Jonah Hex or Lone Ranger reboot that ingloriously shoots itself in one foot while burying the other deeper in the celluloid grave.

Only the bravest of camera-wielding mavericks attempt to outdraw such dire odds, but the latest Uncork’d Entertainment/Prestigious Films production Death Alley is one effort that has a better-than-average chance at winning such a lopsided duel. In little more than ninety minutes, triple-threat writer-director-actor Nicholas Barton delivers an undiluted dose of fact-based frontier mayhem so potent that the audience feels every gunshot and, more skillfully, sympathy for a cast of scoundrels that over a century of legend has turned into revered Midwestern folk heroes.

In 1892, the outlaw Dalton brothers, Bill (Justin France), Bob (Tristan Campbell), Gratton (Jake Washburn) and Emmett (Joshua R. Outzen), along with the rest of their gang, have set their sights on the impossible: to simultaneously raid both banks in the allegedly ‘No-Gun Town’ of Coffeyville, Kansas during a brazen daylight heist. Already on their trail is the tenacious Marshal Heck Thomas (Mark D. Anderson), and from the beginning their plan goes awry. Nervous that the lawman is so close on their heels and fearful they would be recognized, alterations are made that result in the gang becoming hostages in their own scheme while Coffeyville’s citizens, angered at the boldness of the assault, prove their unwillingness to acquiesce to the desperado’s demands and reveal they aren’t as unarmed as the Daltons believe.

Equal parts crime thriller and unconventional family drama, the film’s clever non-linear time progression ratchets up the escalating calamity as it spirals towards an unflinchingly violent finale. Once the Dalton’s ploy goes off the rails, theirs becomes a plight of desperation amid a hailstorm of bullets, and such is the deftness of Barton’s execution that the camerawork itself evolves into as important a player as any actor. Kinetic, crystal-clear direction drags the audience helplessly into the confrontation, and the raw, unglamorous deaths are vivid with blood-spattered brutality. Heightening the atmosphere is the unconventional modern country-rock soundtrack, which showcases the creative boundaries the production team were willing to push to invigorate their tale.  

Pulse-pounding, heart-wrenching, intense in delivery and breathless in its celebration of the classic lawbreaking renegade even as it demystifies them, Death Alley is one watch that’s sure to have crossover appeal. Its spirited approach and unblinking eye to the roughness of the era may yet establish to wary viewers that the Western isn’t quite ready to ride off into a bloody sunset.

I proudly give Death Alley a superb 5 (out of 5) on my Fang Scale. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

5.0 / 5.0