[box cover]

Junior Bonner

Trading in squibs for saddle sores, Sam Peckinpah followed up the most brutal work picture of his notoriously bloody career, Straw Dogs (1970), with Junior Bonner (1971), a gently winsome palliative to his previous film's unflinching treatise on manhood. Steve McQueen plays the title character, a veteran of the rodeo circuit who's encountered lean times whilst chasing that elusive eight-second ride astride a wild bull. Bonner has returned home, where he's still greeted as something of a local hero, though his family knows better. His brother, Curly (Joe Don Baker), has turned himself into an enterprising mobile-home dealer, gobbling up land all over town through which he plans to extend his modest empire. Meanwhile, Ace Bonner, the family patriarch played with irrepressible gusto by Robert Preston, has landed in the hospital after a drunken riding incident. Barely keeping the familial peace is Ace's estranged wife Elvira (Ida Lupino), a loving mother who eyes both of her sons' career paths with a healthy skepticism, while resigned to counting the days until Ace finally incurs an injury that a brief stay in the hospital won't be able to mend. The narrative, such as it is, concerns Junior relying on the generosity of Buck Roan (Ben Johnson) for a chance to ride an unusually wild black bull to glory — a feat that no one thinks Junior has left in him. Though he's flat busted, Junior's a likable enough guy that he engenders goodwill no matter how down he gets. And while he's unhappy enough with Curly muscling Ace off of his old patch of land to knock his brother through a window, he's also secure in the karmic knowledge that someone, sometime is going to have to return the favor (when Curly says, "I'm gonna whip your ass, J.R.," Junior responds resignedly, "Somebody is. Won't be the first time.") It's the Zen-like calm of a man who's made peace with getting thrown from horses most of his life, and the role is a perfect fit for McQueen, who, on the surface, gives Junior a believable ruggedness and plenty of requisite sex appeal. Underneath, though, there lurks a peculiar contentedness that's rare for the movie star mostly known for playing bristling anti-authority icons like The Cooler King or Frank Bullitt. This easygoing nature is matched by Peckinpah, who still gets to trot out his slow-motion bag of tricks, only this time he's capturing decidedly bloodless, but still memorable, sights, like spittle whipping off the mouth of a bucking bull. It's a satisfying change of pace for the director, who was rewarded for his unexpected gentleness with mostly negative reviews from the same critics who castigated him for glorifying violence. Only now has the film emerged as an overlooked minor classic trumpeted by enthusiasts like Quentin Tarantino, who is fond of calling Jackie Brown his Junior Bonner. It's a film of simple pleasures that's refreshingly unlike anything the director ever did. Though Junior's triumphant final ride is oddly anti-climactic (once the family drama is settled, the narrative's primary conflict has largely been resolved), the picture still leaves one feeling satisfied. MGM presents Junior Bonner inexplicably in a non-anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) that doesn't do Lucien Ballard's dusty visuals justice. The audio is monaural, which, while not as bad as the video, still could've used some cleaning up. Interestingly, MGM has seen fit to include a very informative commentary with Peckinpah experts Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, and David Waddle, which is moderated by Nick Redman. Though it's a great track for fans of the director, one would gladly trade it in for a better visual presentation of the film they're discussing. Keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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