Written by Larry Cohen
After watching Desperado: Avalanche at Devil’s Ridge, I had trouble deciding if I should bother writing a plot synopsis or if I would be better off just cataloging the dozen or so slow-motion sequences that make up much of the film’s running time. Since the story is actually a little better-than-average for an ‘80s made-for-TV western, I erred on the side of the plot synopsis, but just barely.
Avalanche is the third of five TV movies featuring the character of Duell McCall (Alex McArthur), a morally-upright outlaw falsely accused of so many crimes, seemingly everyone west of the Mississippi is looking for him (even though—in a handy plot convenience—no one seems to know exactly what he looks like).
The film begins with a slow motion montage of Duell being pursued by a posse as the opening credits play out to a solo re-recording of the Eagles’ Desperado (of course) by Don Henley. After successfully shaking the posse, Duell takes a moment to relax and get water from a spring when Deputy Jim Buckner (Dwier Brown) gets the drop on him. Instead of shooting him on sight, Buckner proves to be an honorable man and simply arrests him with the idea of letting due process take its course. Not surprisingly, Buckner is a bit too progressive to survive long in a western that requires a gunfight every fifteen minutes.
Leading Duell on horseback across a desert stretch of the American southwest, Buckner explains how the bounty he is set to collect will allow him to buy a farm and marry his girlfriend. Soon after this bit of pathos is established, Duell and Buckner are ambushed (in slow motion) by bandits trying to steal their horses. Buckner is fatally wounded, but uses his last bit of strength to free Duell who then kills the would-be horse thieves. When the sheriff (Hoyt Axton) of a nearby town comes across the scene, Duell puts on Buckner’s badge and pretends to be the lawman. Claiming that Buckner is actually the famous outlaw, he follows the sheriff into town to collect on his own bounty.
Before Duell can collect his money and make his escape, he finds himself in a jail cell when his ruse is discovered by the cleverer-than-he-appears sheriff. Waiting to be hanged at the gallows being built and tested—in SLOW MOTION—right outside his cell, Duell finds an unlikely savior in Silas Slaten (Rod Steiger), a local land baron.
Slaten’s teenaged daughter Rachel (Alice Adair) has been kidnapped and taken into the mountains by a religious zealot (Lee Paul) who wants her for his wife. Slaten needs a guide who knows the mountains to rescue her and Duell is his man. Slaten promises to help Duell escape from custody after Rachel is safe, but does anyone believe that?
From that point, the film continues on with a few decent twists, none of which are very surprising, but work to keep the plot lively through the long stretches when Steiger is not on camera. Because, in all honesty, the only reason to see Avalanche is to watch a professional ham of Steiger’s quality chew the scenery.
Before the character of Slaten is introduced, the film, for all its early shootouts, ambushes, and plot twists, is lethargic. All of the actors seem to be trying to underplay their scenes, but just come across as sleepy and bored. But when Steiger shows up, not only daring to speak above a whisper, but to bellow orders at the top of his lungs while bulging out his eyes as far they will go, it provides the sense of fun missing from the film’s early scenes. Where fellow Hollywood veteran Axton is content to phone in his performance and cash the check, Steiger pitches his performance to the rafters. He may be over-the-top, but at least he is entertaining.
The downside to Steiger’s grandiose performance is that he makes almost everyone else in the film look that much more anemic. As Duell, McArthur is blandly handsome, but lacks the charisma needed to carry the film. Even worse are Adair and Lise Cutter (as Duell’s love interest). Their performances move beyond wooden to embarrassing as flat line-readings and bored expressions are all they can muster.
Avalanche was directed by Richard Compton. Frankly, much of the blame for the poor performances has to fall at the feet of the director when the lackluster acting stretches across 99 percent of the cast. But even if he had coaxed decent turns from his main players, he still would be the man responsible for abusing the use of slow motion and staging some horribly blocked action sequences where it is impossible to tell what is happening. He also fails to give any sense of place to the locations, shooting them so that they look exactly like the hastily-constructed sets they are.
It really is a shame that the direction and much of the acting is so poor since Cohen does turn in a fairly entertaining script. The dialogue is nothing to get excited about, but the plot twists and turns, never settling for the obvious story beat. And there are nicely observed character moments that sneak in amongst the ambushes, gun fights, and endless parade of slow motion sequences (seriously, someone falls from a horse in slow motion every twenty minutes—just like clockwork). Cursed with continuing a series of films that had established McArthur’s Duell as the hero, Avalanche was never going to be a great film. But it could have been an entertaining horse opera highlighted by Steiger’s fun performance. Instead, the director and most of the cast treat it like the cheap, thrown-together made-for-TV movie it is. That lack of ambition is dispiriting.
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