Review: Western ‘Hell on the Border’ underserves pioneering African American lawman


Lionsgate has made a tidy cottage industry churning out low-budget, low-quality genre flicks that inexplicably always seem to star chiseled and grizzled action star Frank Grillo and that are destined to languish on some video on demand menu. Grillo’s an actor who can punch far above this weight class when given the right material, which he does not find in the latest entry in this strange canon, the stiff and melodramatic historical western “Hell on the Border,” written and directed by Wes Miller.

“Hell on the Border” is the story of Bass Reeves, played by David Gyasi, who was the first black deputy U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi River. The film opens with a declaration that the black cowboys have been left out of the history books and that this film attempts to serve as a tribute to the incredible life of Reeves, a former slave who escaped during the Civil War and learned Native American languages. But this stilted production is not the legacy that Reeves deserves.

In the overly long and convoluted plot, Reeves sets out with Charlie Storm (Ron Perlman) in pursuit of outlaw Frank Dozier (Grillo), who taunts the lawmen with bloody trophies. Their journey offers Reeves and Storm the opportunity to bond and for Reeves to speak to his life experiences of slavery and racism. At the center, Gyasi is an oasis of stillness and solemnity in a naturalistic performance, but the surrounding action never hangs together in anything authentic, especially with the unnecessarily flowery script and laughably heightened score.

‘Hell on the Border’

Rated: R, for violence and language

Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes

Playing: Starts Dec. 13, Laemmle NoHo 7, North Hollywood