James Butler Hickok, better known as Wild Bill, was one of the heroes of the American Old West; a figure who has attained a near-mythical status and whose exploits – some real, some imagined – are prime material for the big screen. The low-budget indie western Hickok is the latest adaptation of Bill’s life, with his boots now being worn by Luke Hemsworth, older brother of Thor and Miley Cyrus arm candy. He joins a proud tradition of men’s men playing the legendary gunslinger, including Jeff Bridges (Wild Bill), Sam Elliott (Buffalo Girls), and Sam Shepard (Purgatory).
Director Timothy Woodward Jr. and writer Michael Lanahan limit themselves to a single chapter of Hickok’s colorful life: his time spent as a Marshall in Abilene, Texas. They also make a clear effort to stick closely to the historical record: there’s Hickok’s street brawl with gambler/businessman Phil Coe (here renamed Poe and played by a gravel-voiced Trace Adkins), who is made into the black-hatted villain of the show; and his rivalry/friendship with noted outlaw John Wesley Hardin, AKA “Little Arkansas” (Kaiwi Lyman) who becomes his deputy. For a while, this has the potential to turn into a Butch-and-Sundance-style buddy action movie, but Woodward chooses not to go down that road.
Hickok is like that: it tends to skip potentially interesting story developments, probably due to the way-too-short runtime (Wild Bill also suffered from glaucoma, which is paid lip service by having him be “moonblind” or unable to see in the dark, which ultimately has no effect on anything) and stick to a typical Western template, seemingly ticking off a list. This makes for a passable oater which will satisfy the genre fans, but with a figure as larger-than-life as Wild Bill (even though most of his adventures are said to have been exaggerated by him), there’s a feeling that this could have been a lot greater. At times, this feels a lot like one of the guest fantasies (all based on typical Western archetypes) on the Westworld TV show, where Luke Hemsworth has a supporting role.
Speaking of Hemsworth, he manages to make this at least watchable; he’s a less baby-faced, more rough-looking version of his two bros, which is a natural fit for the Wild West. The actor’s solid at playing a tight-lipped badass; there’s no reason why he couldn’t have a career as big as Chris and Liam, and this modest lead role is a fine place to start. He’s even a dead ringer for his Norse God sibling in some shots, so much that you start to wonder if Thor wasn’t brought in as a body double. Woodward also gives him solid support by casting two veteran actors who have some experience wearing wide-brimmed hats and spurs: Kris Kristofferson brings quiet dignity to the underwritten part of George Knox, the man who hires Hickok as a Marshall, while Bruce Dern plays his cameo as the town doctor in the same bug-eyed “crazy old man” way he’s played every other part in the last few years.
Hickok will be just fine for Western enthusiasts, but it’s a bit of a missed opportunity; it de-mystifies Wild Bill’s legend so much it turns ordinary. It’s not the definitive telling of his life but then again, with most of it being fabrications, we probably won’t ever get one.
Hickok opens theatrically on 7 July in ten markets, including Los Angeles, Chicago and Dallas. It will also be available On Demand and Digital HD.