The Good, The Red, and The Ugly: The Last Outlaw (1993)

Dave talks to Eric Red about the western the Hitcher and Near Dark scribe penned for HBO.

“Frontier poetry” is how Peter Travers described Sam Shepard’s Silent Tongue (1993): a beautiful and atmospheric western lusciously lensed by cinematographer Jack Conroy. When I spoke to Richard Spence about his cowboy flick, Blind Justice (1994), a few months back, I asked whether it was Conroy’s exemplary work in Silent Tongue that landed the Irishman a spot on Spence’s film in the first place. “No,” came the unexpectedly blunt response. “I mean, that’s true, but Jack had also just shot The Last Outlaw for HBO and that was one of the main influences behind working with him. I thought he did some nice work in that.”

Riding the Dances with Wolves (1990) and Unforgiven (1992)-led wave of ’90s horse operas, THE LAST OUTLAW (1993) harnessed the bristling talent of New Zealand director Geoff Murphy. Murphy rose to prominence with homegrown sci-fi The Quiet Earth (1985) before coming to America and making Young Guns II (1990). Prior to calling the shots on another sequel, Under Siege 2: Dark Territory (1995), the filmmaker stopped at HBO for a spell where he made Blind Side (1993): a cracking thriller starring Rutger Hauer in a Hitcher (1986)-tinged turn. Fate, then, that Murphy’s second feature for the network should be written by The Hitcher‘s scribe, Eric Red.

“The Last Outlaw was a spec script I wrote under the title ‘The Last’ out of a love of westerns around 1991, 1992 time,” says Red. “My agent put the screenplay on the market and it garnered executive fans but didn’t sell because the studios historically hate westerns and don’t believe the genre is commercial. After that, I put it on the shelf and forgot about it. Then, a few years later, a month before Unforgiven came out, an executive called my agent out of the blue asking if ‘that western script’ I wrote was still available. The word on Eastwood’s movie was that it was going to be huge, and for one brief moment westerns were hot in Hollywood. I partnered with my friend producer John Davis and we set the film up at HBO a few months after that. It was a case of good timing.”

Set in the wake of the American Civil War at a time when former Confederate soldiers were known for forming their own gangs with the intention of robbing Yankee banks, we meet one such group led by Graff (Mickey Rourke). In the aftermath of a heist, Graff is betrayed by his clan and decides that the best way to exact revenge is to cosy up with some outlaws and hunt down the traitors one by one.

“When the story idea came to me, that the posse chasing is being done by outlaws who are led by their old leader who they shot and left for dead, it suggested a complex psychological story. From there, all the characters pretty much fell into placeI felt that a good western involved a strong mano-a-mano confrontation between the good guy and bad guy. It’s a physical genre, so I wanted it to be a chase where the production elements were cowboys, horses, and landscape. Something stripped down and simple.”

Red certainly achieved his objective. The Last Outlaw carries an austere intricacy. A test of loyalties that unfolds almost entirely against vast New Mexican wilds, shunning sets and interiors for expanse (all of which is beautifully shot by Conroy, albeit stifled by the film’s TV/4:3 ratio), there are few distractions to Red’s impressively lean script aside from the brutal bursts of violence that Murphy seems besotted by. The cast is phenomenal, with Graff’s former cohorts inhabited by such dynamic talents as Dermot Mulroney, Ted Levine, John C. McGinley, Steve Buscemi, and Keith David. Granted, the mumbling Rourke gets top billing, but he’s frequently outshone by the rest of the ensemble, and there are long stretches when the 9 ½ Weeks (1986) star is barely in shot. Sporting a precisely manicured Fu Manchu moustache and eyebrows to match, there’s a nagging suspicion that he’s not quite right for the role and was framed accordingly — particularly if behind the scenes rumours are anything to go by.

Then a hot topic for the tabloids (mostly because of his volatile relationship with Wild Orchid (1989) co-star Carré Otis), The Last Outlaw was one of Rourke’s first projects after he took a sabbatical from acting to resume his boxing career. His return to the movies was enough to put the rumour mill in overdrive: Entertainment Weekly suggested he was exasperating to deal with, and Murphy allegedly became so frustrated by the “ludicrous spectacle” of a heavily made-up Rourke that he used a body double whenever possible. As a result, The Last Outlaw supposedly strayed well over its $5.5million budget [1]. Naturally, none of this was evident during Richard Mahler’s set visit on behalf of the Los Angeles Times:

“It was a chance to do something different, and the director was a little eccentric,” remarked the actor. “He didn’t care about my reputation for being difficult.”

“I’ve had no problem with Mickey,” Murphy added. [2]

Red, who was on set every day in his role as co-executive producer and second unit director, was similarly at ease with Rourke’s presence, and admitted to being quite thrilled by the presence of the performer’s entourage, which included the legendary Hells Angels member Chuck Zito.

“I was involved in the casting process, and it remains the most creative one that I was ever involved in. It was an exciting and interesting experience making the movie, including working with the Hells Angels and Mickey’s crew at the time. In fact, we cast a lot of them as the posse!”

[1] A Good Soldier, People / Television, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 14th July 1993.
[2] On ‘The Last Outlaws’ Trail by Richard Mahler, Los Angeles Times, 24th October 1993.

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