Some people were confused when Christopher Nolan cast former One Direction member Harry Styles in his war epic “Dunkirk.” But there is precedent for a brilliant director casting a pop star in an excellent film. One need only look at Howard Hawks’ 1959 Western flick, “Rio Bravo.”
This movie is set in the eponymous American town. Sheriff John T. Chance, played by John Wayne, has arrested a murderer whose brother is a powerful, unscrupulous rancher. Now Chance has to make sure that hired gunmen don’t bust the murderer out of jail. Luckily, he gets some help from his colorful deputies.
Wayne has starred in many iconic westerns. His work in this film is not at the level of his titanic performance in “The Searchers,” but it is way more fun to watch. The real draw is the actors who play Chance’s deputies. Dean Martin is gripping as the alcoholic Dude, which is a play on his popular stage act as a comic lush. Walter Brennan is hilarious as the aging Stumpy. Angie Dickinson is smart and flirtatious as Feathers, Chance’s love interest.
But one of the most unusual bits of casting in this film was having singer Ricky Nelson play a young gunslinger named Colorado Ryan. In some ways, much of Nelson’s career was similar to Miley Cyrus’ Disney channel phase. He starred in a sitcom with his parents called “The Adventures of Ozzy and Harriet,” then had a career as an Elvis Presley-esque crooner. Director Howard Hawks did not want to cast Nelson as Colorado. He considered him too young for the part, since he was 17 before shooting began. Hawks gave Nelson as few lines as possible to signify his displeasure with having to use him. But Nelson’s performance isn’t awful. He manages to hold his own with some excellent actors. He even manages to sing a good cover of “My Rifle, My Pony and Me” with Martin.
Some of my favorite parts of “Rio Bravo” are its set pieces. The first four minutes are silent and they economically set up some of the essential conflicts. There are plenty of expertly choreographed shootouts. Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett’s dialogue is excellent. It is alternately funny, menacing and intelligent. The varied mood of the dialogue matches the constantly shifting tone of “Rio Bravo.” There are some sequences that are lighthearted. Other sequences deal with the pain of trying to conquer addiction. “Rio Bravo” feels like it is constantly reinventing itself, even as it doggedly moves toward a great conclusion.
The visual look of this movie is fantastic. Russell Harlan’s cinematography makes beautiful use of bright colors and shadows. He helps turn “Rio Bravo” into a delight to watch.
This movie isn't without its flaws, especially when it comes to ethnic stereotypes and slurs. But overall, the style and cast of "Rio Bravo" make it worth seeing. Ricky Nelson gives a better performance than most people would have expected. It makes me hopeful to see Styles’ work in “Dunkirk.” If one pop star can be great in a classic, then why not another?