A two-disc edition of the 1959 Western Rio Bravo is one of a slew of titles being reissued on the occasion of what would have been John Wayne's 100th birthday. While there's no doubt that it's one of the best films he starred in, calling it a John Wayne film is no more fair than calling it a Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, Angie Dickinson, or Walter Brennan movie. Set on the untamed frontier of 19th-century Texas, Rio Bravo features characters who form a familial bond while performing an impossible task in the face of death. It is, in other words, a Howard Hawks movie.
It's a great one, too, and if it's not Hawks' best, it's certainly the most Hawksian. Approaching the Western genre with a subtler recklessness than he brought to the sweeping Red River (also starring Wayne), Hawks packs a film's worth of action into five wordless opening minutes. Martin begs for alcohol. Wayne attempts to save Martin from humiliation, in the process revealing himself as a sheriff with only a tenuous control of his town's criminal elements. That control threatens to slip away when Wayne arrests the villainous brother (Claude Akins) of a local rancher (John Russell) for cold-blooded murder. Then Wayne is forced to wait for a federal marshal to come take Akins off his hands, while Russell and a band of hired killers plot to ensure the transfer never takes place.
As Wayne waits for the inevitable, the pace slows and the plot becomes secondary. Taking on Martin as a deputy—though he abandoned that job years earlier—Wayne helps his friend dry out. He meets Dickinson, a pretty, willful drifter with a past that threatens to undo her. He takes in young gun Nelson and shoots the breeze with old hand Brennan, who plays the part for comic relief while quietly emphasizing a clearly painful physical disability. At one point, Hawks stops the movie to let Nelson and Martin sing for no particular reason. Between the occasional run-in with a bad guy, Hawks has them wander the town until we know every corner. When the life-or-death climax finally arrives, Hawks makes it impossible not to care what happens, because we know the characters just as well. Mountains peek over the horizon of the film's Texas town, but Hawks has more intimate business in mind.
Key features: A handful of well-done featurettes are topped by a sharp, admiring commentary by Richard Schickel and John Carpenter.