Anybody who knows anything about Old West heroes knows that the legendary ‘Will Bill’ Hickok bit the dust in Deadwood, South Dakota, in 1876, when a disgruntled poker player named Jack McCall cold-bloodedly came up behind him and shot him in the back of the head. Described as an appallingly inept gambler, McCall had grown despondent with his losing streak, and he surprised Wild Bill when the latter least expected it. When he died, Hickok clutched black aces and eights, now known as “The Dead Man’s Hand.” Later, McCall faced a jury, was convicted of murder, and sentenced to swing. “Traded” director Timothy Woodward, Jr’s predictable, but entertaining biography of the famous lawman’s life in “Hickok,” (**1/2 OUT OF ****) adds little of consequence to what is generally known about the title character’s notorious reputation. More specifically, Woodward confines himself to Hickok’s daring exploits during the American Civil War and his early years as a lawman in Abilene, Kansas, and his woes with glaucoma, before his tragic demise in Deadwood. Of course, Woodward and “Perfect Target” scenarist Michael Lanahan try to accommodate history so it least interferes with their bullet-riddled, law and order saga. Although he wore shoulder-length hair, with a mustache, the eponymous hero here is clean-shaven and closely trimmed. In his first starring role, Australian native Luke Hemsworth holds his own as ‘Wild Bill’ against veteran actors, such as Trace Adkins, Kris Kristofferson, and Bruce Dern. Hemsworth wears black well and looks sufficiently imposing. He handles his six-guns with skill, too. Hawaiian native Kaiwi Lyman rates an honorable mention for his performance of another real-life ruffian named John Wesley Hardin. Meanwhile, Adkins is appropriately cast as the primary villain, and his deep, grouchy voice accentuates his villainy. Kristofferson and Dern lurk on the fringes, with Kristofferson earning more screen time with a backstory that restores his youth. What distinguishes “Hickok” from many low-budget westerns is the attention to detail that Woodward has taken to the settings. Dozens of extras roam the streets of Abilene so it looks like the town is inhabited, and superior production values lend “Hickok” greater authenticity. Spanish lenser Pablo Diez’s widescreen cinematography captures the majesty of the settings and the conflict of the moment with either wide-open long shots or atmospheric close-ups.
“Hickok” unfolds during the American Civil War with a skirmish between Union and Confederate soldiers. Under heavy fire from Southern cannon and a multi-barreled Gatling Gun, an audacious Hickok (Luke Hemsworth of HBO’s “Westworld”) vaults astride a horse and charges the enemy, brandishing two cap and ball revolvers like Clint Eastwood in the classic western “Outlaw Josey Wales.” You’d think that the guys on the rapid-firing Gatling Gun could have shot Hickok to ribbons. Instead, they are such inept marksmen that he comes out without a scratch. Of course, they couldn’t kill our hero because that would stop the action dead in its tracks. After this brief, bloody opening gambit, “Hickok” picks up the life of the celebrated gunslinger seven years later. ‘Wild Bill’ is accurately portrayed in one instance as a vagrant who cannot afford a train ticket. Nevertheless, Hickok’s intervention in a poker game later where one player accuses the other of cheating brings him to the attention of Abilene Mayor George Knox (Kris Kristofferson of “Heaven’s Gate”), and he hires him as town marshal for $150 a month and board. Hickok tries to cut a bargain with villainous saloon-owner Phil Poe (Trace Atkins of “The Lincoln Lawyer”) for quarter share of their profits, and they have a tetchy relationship, especially after Hickok bans all firearms from being worn in Abilene. Worse, Poe learns that his betrothed, Mattie (Cameron Richardson of “Rise: Blood Hunter”), was once married to Hickok. Poe smashes up Mattie’s face, and his villainy gets out of hand. At this point, Poe wants ‘Wild Bill’ dead, and he is prepared to pay anybody whatever it takes to put Hickok in a six-foot hole. Initially, the first contender is none other than John Wesley Hardin (Kaiwi Lyman of “American Crime”), but the two gunslingers have too much admiration and respect for each other. Hickok convinces Hardin to pin on the badge of a deputy marshal to keep him on the right side of the law. These two have an interesting scene in Poe’s bar when they compete against each other with target practice on a bottle. Hickok shoots the cork out of it, but Hardin goes one better, shooting the cork out of the bottle while its spins!
For the record, as many as eighteen notable actors have portrayed the flamboyant, fast-draw, sharp-shooter on the big screen as well as the small screen. Luke Hemsworth joins the likes of such greats as William S. Hart, Gary Cooper, Roy Rogers, Forrest Tucker, Guy Madison, Charles Bronson, Jeff Bridges, and Josh Brolin who have all portrayed this colorful personality. Unfortunately, “Hickok” isn’t as exciting as earlier movies, among them “The Plainsman” (1936), “Will Bill Hickok Rides” (1942), the 1966 remake of “The Plainsman,” “Little Big Man” (1970), “The White Buffalo” (1977), and “Wild Bill” (1995). Woodward stages the shootouts without the acrobatic flair that characterized Spaghetti westerns in the 1960s and the 1970s. Most of the violence is impromptu, and the participants don’t stick around long after they have emptied their revolvers. The low-budget becomes somewhat obvious because most of the action takes place in Abilene instead of out on the plains. The grand finale in Poe’s saloon near fadeout with Hickok and Harden knocking down Poe’s paid pistoleros is the exception to the rule. During the moments leading up to it, Hickok and Poe are staring each other down, until Poe shouts that he will shell out $500 to the first man to kill ‘Wild Bill.’ Woodward doesn’t wear out his welcome with this slowly-paced, 88-minute oater that boasts an adequate amount of gunplay. Altogether, “Hickok” qualifies as a fair account of ‘Wild Bill’ shenanigans in the context of a formulaic ‘town taming’ western.