Based on George Durham's nonfiction book “Taming the Neuces Strip: The Story of McNelly's Rangers,” this plodding retread of territory covered memorably in Larry McMurtry's “Lonesome Dove” series and elsewhere riffs on the real-life adventures of historical preacher-turned-Ranger commander Leander McNelly (Dylan McDermott), who takes on the mission of cleansing the Lone Star State of cattle-rustling outlaw scum even as consumption is claiming his own life. Most important among the wet-behind-the-ears recruits he assembles for the job is a book-smart but trail-ignorant Philadelphia youth (“Varsity Blues'” James Van Der Beek) with his own score to settle with the bandito leader who murdered his family.
While the capable McDermott has his moments as the vengeful, embittered McNelly, no one else in the cast has much to work with in this painfully predictable mess. The idea of having Van Der Beek's Ivy League-type main protagonist be the very antithesis of the traditional western hero initially seems to have some potential to freshen up the formula, but this element is soon too mired in the script's hackneyed writing and the actor's hopelessly bland presence to get anywhere. Following on the spurred heels of the even more wretched “American Outlaws,” it's all enough to break a western lover's heart. Suddenly those Brat Pack-era “Young Guns” films don't seem so bad after all. Starring James Van Der Beek, Dylan McDermott, Rachael Leigh Cook, Ashton Kutcher, Robert Patrick, Alfred Molina, Usher Raymond, Leonor Varela, Randy Travis and Tom Skerritt. Directed by Steve Miner. Written by Scott Busby and Martin Copeland. Produced by Alan Greisman and Frank Price. A Dimension release. Western. Rated PG-13 for western violence. Running time: 89 min