Director: Jesse V. Johnson
Cast: Thomas Jane, Dean Jagger, Dominique Tipper, Jess Liaudin, Rachel Wilde, Nick Moran, Patrick Bergin, John Malkovich, Alena Gerber, David Sakurai
Duration: 95 mins.
By Henry McKand
Once upon a time, A Ranger, the latest from DTV titan Jesse V. Johnson, would be a reliable box office draw based solely on the strength of its logline: A surly Texas Ranger named (Thomas Jane) is called in by British intelligence to travel to the UK and team up with an MI6 agent (Dominique Tipper) to bring down a former IRA terrorist (Dean Jagger). That kind of wacky buddy cop, fish-out-of-water premise was liquid gold when Gene Hackman and Mel Gibson were solid leads. Now, it reads like a charming but quaint idea for a direct-to-stream throwaway. Sadly, most of us seem to have forgotten the simple allure of watching hard-nosed lawmen deal with culture shock while dodging bullets.
Fortunately, there is a small but loyal minority who were looking forward to it A Ranger as a perfect way to spend 90 minutes. Most of these viewers (myself included) recognize Johnson as the reliable action house that he is, and a sizable portion (myself strongly included) considers Thomas Jane as one of the biggest and least used Hollywood stars of the past 25 years. Seeing him team up with Johnson on a gin-u-wine modern western was absolute catnip for a lot specific fragment of the Venn diagram.
The good news is that the Punisher himself is in fine form as the titular ranger, sporting a Seth Bullock mustache and talking like the bastard love child of modern day Nick Nolte and Jeff Bridges in Hell or high water. Jane has gotten leaner and more intense as she’s aged; Her gaunt face has swallowed her squinty, piercing eyes, but she’s as commanding a screen presence as she was in the early 2000s. Her acting is also as strong as ever; she brings an easygoing sense of authenticity to her role even as she leans into the gravelly-voiced Texan shtick so loud it veers on cartoon.
When he first appears on screen, he’s walking through the Texas desert as if he owns the place. An entire film could have been made with the character in his natural habitat, but it isn’t long before a series of plot devices bring him into the orbit of Dominique Tipper’s Agent Smith. After this, the script wastes no time in putting the two on a plane to London, where they must work through their differences and prevent a dirty bomb from being detonated on British soil, all while being chewed up by their supervisor (played by John Malkovich , who delivers his “stop being disowned” speeches at such a bizarrely rapid pace that it’s unclear whether he’s making a creative decision or just excited to finish filming so he can cash his check).
Jane and Tipper both had major roles in The Expanse, and their dynamic is the unexpected heart of the film. Despite the lone wolf implications of the title, A Ranger it works best when the two are on screen together. Instead of producing boring conflicts, Johnson’s script allows for a relaxed rapport from the outset. The result is a warm, lived-in collaboration that could have sustained a TV series in the ’80s, and they have the semi-platonic chemistry of the best cop duos.
But this is a 2023 release from a director known for offering Scott Adkins showcases on the walls, meaning the friend’s laid-back charm is a constant contrast to the more violent action flick the poster promises. Considering Johnson’s track record with fight sequences, it’s no surprise that the fight is often the weakest part of the film. Overly choreographed showdowns with nameless henchmen in abandoned buildings have saturated the mid-level action market for more than a decade, and A Ranger it fails to inject these sequences with any originality. Instead, the most memorable fight scenes are edgy brawls between Jane and a heavyweight played by One shot‘s Jess Liaudin, and even these scenes seem tame reenactments of Jane’s fight with Kevin Nash’s “The Russian” from The Punisher.
This very modern approach to the action, with constant bloodshed and a focus on catching impressive stunts, never quite freezes with the old-school hangout vibe of the slower-moving scenes. Scenes of the elderly lawman being suddenly transported inside The raid they’re as embarrassing as they get, and it doesn’t help that these impressive stunts are clearly performed by a man that is Not Thomas Jane. He should have spent more time strengthening the bond between the two heroes and interpreting the detective work of the “stranger in a new land”.
A Rangers biggest flaw is that it never feels like the kind of movie that would make a splash on the big screen, even at the height of the crime film craze. At the end of the day, it’s too sloppy to match the mechanical brilliance of the genre classics it takes its cue from. Still, the moments where Johnson slows down and lets Jane and Tipper do the heavy lifting are strong enough to be worth the price of admission (or, more realistically, the price of an Amazon Video rental). An Honest-to-God TV series featuring these characters is next to impossible, but it’s not entirely ridiculous to imagine it having at least one sequel (it worked for The debt collector!). If he has such luck, let’s hope Johnson goes with the flow and makes the most of Jane and Tipper’s performances instead of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.
Henry McKeand score: 5.5/10