As its title implies, writer-director-actor Tanner Beard’s The Legend of Hell’s Gate: An American Conspiracy is an ambitious, sprawling, and muddled take on the allegedly true story associated with the Possum Kingdom Lake cliff formation. There’s a good western romp in there somewhere, but viewers have to sift through a lot of superfluous detail to get to it.
Beard stars as down-and-out Irish ne’er-do-well James McKinnon, opposite Eric Balfour and Lou Taylor Pucci as equally unfortunate bounty hunter Will Edwards and errand boy Kelly, respectively. They’re a classic spaghetti western-style group of anti-heroes, a trio of men who normally would have nothing to do with one another but who are thrust together by circumstances beyond their control.
Specifically, they wind up on the run together after an attempt to bring a sleazy saloon owner to justice devolves into a robbery and massive shoot-out (initiated by Doc Holliday, no less) in the streets of Dallas circa 1976 that leaves several dead and turns McKinnon and Edwards into fugitives. At the same time, Kelly goes on the lam after stealing what might be the gun that killed Abraham Lincoln from a tubercular businessman (Henry Thomas of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial fame, who seems to be slipping farther down the cinematic food chain with each passing year) who claims to be John Wilkes Booth via a deathbed confession.
McKinnon, Kelly, and Edwards bicker endlessly while robbing the East Texas population blind as they dodge a posse, Comanche braves, and possibly psychotic fur trapper on the way towards what will either be escape or an apocalyptic showdown of Tarantinoan proportions.
Which makes it sound more interesting than it really is. The movie was shot on location in the Possum Kingdom area, and is well-cast with recognizable faces — Summer Glau (Firefly), Glenn Morshower (24), Jamie Thomas King (The Tudors), and character actor Buck Taylor (Cowboys & Aliens) — whose characters clutter a chaotic, confusing story. Tanner valiantly attempts to at character development, but his technique results in what feels like inconsequential story threads that are quickly abandoned — the worst of which is the pointless “Is he or isn’t he” Booth subplot.
The Legend of Hell’s Gate doesn’t focus itself and deliver some good western tropes until almost an hour in, and Beard never puts its historical details into perspective. It gets pretty good when it finally does pick up the pace, but by then it’s too little, too late.