Butch and Sundance: The Early Days (1979) / Western-Comedy

MPAA Rated: PG for violence and mild sexuality
Running Time: 115 min.

Cast: Tom Berenger, William Katt, Brian Dennehy, Peter Weller, Jeff Corey, John Schuck, Michael C. Gwynne, Christopher Lloyd, Jill Eikenberry
Director: Richard Lester

Screenplay: Allan Burns
Review published May 7, 2004

When you have a big hit that could have been a franchise had not the original film had final closure, common sense would dictate that you could start at the beginning, with a prequel instead of a sequel.  The trouble here is that, ten years later, stars Newman and Redford are too old to play themselves in the earlier days.  Butch and Sundance: The Early Days is probably what you'd expect in such a film, not really trying to venture out on its own so much as to stay within the confines of 1969's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, casting two leads who closely resemble the protagonists of the earlier version in looks and mannerisms.  Unlike many who have trod down this path before, the creators were successful in casting two men who actually have some acting ability and charisma in Tom Berenger (Platoon, Major League) and William Katt (Carrie, House).  At its best, The Early Days does manage to capture the spirit of the first film just enough to please the fans, while never really achieving any distinction or inspiration of its own to take this to uncharted territories.

The story delves into the circumstances of the two men meeting, their subsequent friendship, and how they each received their outlaw nicknames.  The plotline is sporadic, showing a number of their adventures, rather than stick with one overall story, and each stop along the way is pleasant and humorous enough to not mind the lack of solid structure.  There are a few nice scenes, although in the end, there is little that will linger long in the memory.  It's a subtle, quiet film, a bit on the boring side at times, but for those with a sense of nostalgia and liking for whimsical character-based Westerns, it's a worthwhile adventure.

The direction by Lester (Superman II, A Hard Day's Night) is workmanlike, never getting in the way of the story or characters, bringing out the best parts of the screenplay by longtime sitcom writer, Allan Burns (who coincidentally wrote the screenplay the same year for A Little Romance, directed by George Roy Hill, the director of the first Butch and Sundance).  The cinematography by Laszlo Kovacs (Ghostbusters, My Best Friend's Wedding) makes the film easy on the eyes even during the slower moments, and the Academy Award nominated costumes by William Ware Theiss (Spartacus) gives the Old West a chic feel that doesn't make it seem so dirty.

I can only recommend this film to fans of the first film who aren't complete fanatics.  It will probably not hold the interest of most who are unfamiliar with the complete story, and those who adore the Newman/Redford flick will probably be sorely disappointed that this prequel captures little of the magic or charm of its inspiration.  However, taking things at face value, this is still a nicely performed and thought out film that actually has some integrity and intelligence -- remarkable for a follow-up that is obviously an attempt by the movie studio to try to capitalize.

Qwipster's rating:

2004 Vince Leo