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Missing in Action 

I have sometimes typified the phenomenon as greed. But perhaps the problem emanates from America's workaholic culture. We define ourselves by what we do. So we exist and confirm our existence only insofar as we act. Maybe that explains why talented, successful filmmakers sometimes work on pedestrian projects. They can't need the money, so they must need the work even when the work is beneath them. This week's case in point is Ron Howard's The Missing, a movie that's been made before, made better and certainly has no need to be made again.

Adapted by screenwriter Ken Kaufman from Thomas Edison's novel, The Last Ride, The Missing will instantly recall the John Ford classic The Searchers, with which it has much in common save the classicism. We are in the 1880s out at the edge of civilization. Maggie Gilkeson (Cate Blanchett) runs a cattle ranch and practices a kind of folk medicine. She's known in the area as a "healer" and folks come to her with rashes and coughs, broken bones and rotted teeth. She's also the mother of two daughters: a teenager, Lily (Evan Rachel Wood), and a 10-year-old, Dot (Jenna Boyd).

But the only man in her life is one of her ranch hands, Brake Baldwin (Aaron Eckhart), and he's held steadfastly at an emotional distance. Maggie will let Brake into her bed, but he can't spend the night (not that her girls are fooled for a fleeting second). Seems that Maggie is pretty hostile to the male of the species, and that, we learn, is because her dear old dad, Samuel Jones (Tommy Lee Jones), ran off when she was herself a girl. Sam took up with Indians and even married an Apache woman.

Two coincident events serve to provoke Maggie from her guarded existence. First, Sam shows up wanting to make nice. Rebuff city. Then Lily is kidnaped by Chidin (Eric Schweig), absolutely the baddest renegade Indian since murdering Mox Mox in Larry McMurtry's The Streets of Laredo. Chidin is pockmarked, black-toothed and otherwise monstrous. He's also a brujo (or witch) who can give you bad dreams, night sweats and an upset tummy. He roasts poor old Brake like a giant chestnut on open fire. Others he scratches with rattlesnake venom.

Along with Lily he's got six other young women he intends to sell into prostitution south of the Mexican border. But not if Maggie can stop him. She's still not willing to be nice to Sam, but on the other hand the only other person around to help is Dot. So Sam it is, and the chase is on.

The chase only lasts about one hour and 50 minutes of this two-hour, 20-minute flick, but it feels like it lasts a month. And it doesn't make a lick of sense. Chidin is riding with a dozen tough hombres, some fellow Apache renegades, some bad-ass white guys as well. So the sides are perfectly equal. A dozen blood-thirsty felons versus a woman, an old man and a 10-year-old girl. Those tough hombres never had a chance, did they?

The picture's flimsy plot careens from the improbable to the ridiculous. At first, Maggie and Sam agree that they will simply trail Chidin till they can convince the U.S. Cavalry to kill him and rescue Lily. But since Chidin and his fellow villains are riding out across the bleakest of the south New Mexico desert, and since satellite phones won't be invented for another hundred years, it's not exactly clear how Maggie and Sam think they'll alert the cavalry. That doesn't stop the plot from having our heroes accidentally cross paths with the Cavalry, but, of course, political correctness requires that the cavalry be a band of spineless martinets, so they aren't any use, anyway.

Fiddlesticks. Mexico is looming on the horizon like a bad storm rising. Maggie and Sam have no choice but stage an ambush. Yes, they would seem to be hours if not days behind Chidin and his men, but in Bad Scriptwriting 101 you are taught forthrightly to ignore previous plot details that get in the way of immediate plot needs. So suddenly Maggie and Sam are ahead of Chidin and ambush it is. That's when we learn why there had to be a Dot in this movie. So she can screw up the ambush and allow the movie to go on even longer.

Well, ever so much more happens. For the purposes of political correctness, some good Indians show up to offset the bad Indians in Chidin's gang. And finally Sam and Chidin get to have a knife fight while Maggie kills some other bad Indians. Eventually the movie ends, and that's the best thing it does.

click to enlarge Maggie Gilkeson (Cate Blanchett) tries to hold onto - her family in Ron Howard's Western The - Missing.
  • Maggie Gilkeson (Cate Blanchett) tries to hold onto her family in Ron Howard's Western The Missing.
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