'Streets' aims for the heart TV preview: It's bloody and bleak, but writing, acting make 'Laredo' very good viewing.

November 11, 1995|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

"Streets of Laredo" is filled with king-sized characters, mythic frontier imagery, buckets of blood and more dead animals than I want to think about.

The two-night, CBS mini-series is also loaded with talent both in front and behind the cameras.

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Larry McMurtry co-wrote the screenplay -- something he did only once before for one of his books, "The Last Picture Show." James Garner and Sissy Spacek deliver the kind of exquisitely understated performances that make you believe in and care about their characters immediately and, possibly, forever. Sam Shepard, Sonia Braga and Ned Beatty ain't too shabby either, by the way.

Compared to the usual November sweeps, made-for-TV fare, "Streets of Laredo" deserves a four-star rave. But compared to the original "Lonesome Dove" -- the one with Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall as Texas Rangers Woodrow Call and Augustus McCrae -- it's more in the three-star category. Let's call it "nearly great" and note a few reservations amid the praise.

There isn't much plot, for one thing. "Dove" was the story of a cattle drive from south Texas to the Canadian border of "Montanny" (Montana for you tenderfoots). As a result, the plot was hero-quest, mono-myth and epic journey all rolled up into one resonant, cross country, American saga. It was Homer by way of Zane Grey and Joseph Campbell.

In terms of story, "Laredo" is more like a western version of the modern-day, TV police drama. There's a psycho-killer out on the frontier somewhere robbing trains and slaughtering people, and an aged Woodrow Call (Garner) is hired to end the gunman's career.

Woodrow Call has retired as a Ranger, and his partner, Gus McCrae, has been dead 15 years (remember Woodrow dragging Gus back for burial in "Dove"?; better yet, remember Hector's body being dragged around in "The Iliad"?). The only worthy sidekick Woodrow can find is Pea Eye Parker (Shepard), who doesn't really want to chase bad guys anymore now that he's married to Lorena (Spacek), with a farm and five kids. (Yes, Lorena was a prostitute in "Dove.")

The baddest of the bad guys is Joey Garza (Alexis Cruz), a blond-haired, blue-eyed, androgynous Mexican gunslinger who looks like a rock star and kills like the angel of death. In case Joey's indiscriminate slaughter of men, women, sheep and horses isn't enough, another bad guy pops up in "Laredo," Mox Mox (Kevin Conway), who likes to burn women, children and dogs alive. A third bad guy, John Wesley Hardin (Randy Quaid), seems to be in "Laredo" mainly to up the body count.

Which brings me to a second reservation -- the violence. I accepted the intense violence of "Dove" on the basis that it was mythic -- like the bloody "Iliad" -- and that such violence defined the American frontier experience.

Much of the violence in "Laredo" is justified, but some of it feels like the gratuitous cop show stuff done mainly to shock or amuse viewers. There's a scene in which Lorena shoots a pig point blank. For no good reason that I can think of, the camera shows us the pig sinking to its knees and then dying. The same kind of loving detail is given to Joey blowing the face off a railroad man.

All that said, "Streets of Laredo" is still a pretty fine five-hour ride. By TV standards, the level of acting is stunning. Even minor roles -- like comedian George Carlin playing a drunk who loves Maria Garza (Braga) -- are memorable. Braga herself steals a couple of scenes. Beatty is mesmerizing as a deranged Judge Roy Bean.

There's an honesty in the ending that must be admired, too. Despite some cheery words from Lorena that strike an especially tinny note, it's overwhelmingly dark and bleak compared to most made-for-television endings.

It's McMurtry's unsentimental vision of how we are all diminished by the passing of time. In the end, he forces us to look down on the final tableau in "Streets of Laredo" with the cold eye of a distant god. We feel the chill of night spreading its icy cloak across the Great Plains and wonder how any settlers ever managed to survive, let alone find love and multiply.

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