Screen icon Steve McQueen (Love with the Proper Stranger, Bullitt) is at his rugged best in this totally captivating tale of a fading rodeo champion from acclaimed director Sam Peckinpah (The Getaway, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Convoy). With his bronco-busting career on its last legs, Junior Bonner (McQueen) heads to his hometown to try his luck in the annual rodeo. But his fond childhood memories are shattered when he finds his family torn apart by his greedy brother (Joe Don Baker, Framed) and hard-drinking father (Robert Preston, The Music Man). Now Junior must break the wildest bull in the West to bring his family together for one final moment of cowboy glory in the roughest, rowdiest ride of his life! Junior Bonner is an extraordinarily graceful yet unflinching rendering of a slice of Americana, beautifully shot by the great Lucien Ballard (The Ballad of Cable Hogue) and featuring a top-notch cast which also includes Ida Lupino (Road House), Ben Johnson (The Wild Bunch), Mary Murphy (Beachhead), Dub Taylor (Burnt Offerings), Don Red Barry (Shalako) and Bill McKinney (Deliverance).
"I gotta go down my own road."
"What road? I'm working on my first million. You're still working on eight seconds."
When you have a certain filmmaker or a star actor attached to a title, there comes with it a natural set of expectations. Without putting too fine a point on Sam Peckinpah's 1972 drama Junior Bonner starring the great Steve McQueen, this rodeo family drama is saddled with quite a bit of expectation that doesn't quite live up to its own potential. One part rodeo competition sports drama, one part family legacy drama, the film's two sides often fail to capitalize on the assets at hand and leaves a terrific cast standing idly in the dust.
Rodeo is a way of life for a certain metal of men. It's hard. It's brutal. Most of all it's painful taking a physical toll that breaks a man or leaves him hobbled the rest of his days. For Junior Bonner (Steve McQueen), it's the only life he knows - and it's coming to an end. Time and toil have taken beating on the former Rodeo champion. 8 seconds on top of a raging bull is getting longer and longer. After his most recent defeat, Junior has one last chance to tame the wildest bull in the west - but that means going back to a home he left long ago. Before Junior takes on his last ride, he'll have to patch things up with his mother Elvira (Ida Lupino), his drunk and broke father Ace (Robert Preston), and his scheming brother Curly (Joe Don Baker).
With films like Straw Dogs, The Wild Bunch, and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia under his belt, Junior Bonner feels more than a little bit like an outlier in Peckinpah's career behind the camera. Not to say that the material ever strays away from his grip, it does have a certain languid quality to it that never quite feels natural. While there is an understandable attempt at showing the down-home country side of life in Arizona, it never quite gels with Peckinpah's signature juxtaposition montage editing style. Moments where Junior stares down a bulldozer about to level his father's shack home feels more confusing rather than providing dramatic weight because it lacks a sense of context. That context does come, but in fits and starts that are so infrequent, it becomes difficult to remember what the problem was in the first place.
The biggest issue at play as I see it is the warring of two different dramatic structures. One film is the traditional sports film, like a boxing drama about an aged pugilist who climbs back into the ring for one more round. We watch a broke and broken man take one last stab at glory where it could likely kill him. The other film is the prodigal son family drama about a man who left home for a life of glory only to come back the favorite son compared to the child who stayed behind to build a life for the family. The conflict between Junior, his mother, and father, and his brother Curley certainly offers up the potential for great moments, but there are few sparks and any heat from the conflict is on the tepid side of things.
That isn't to say the film is a complete failure. While Junior Bonner struggles to define itself and live up to the talented pedigree and story potential, it is an arresting film. Beautifully shot and well staged, McQueen gives one of the most honest performances of his career. It wasn't flashy, it wasn't cool. It's a work of humble acknowledgment that the party eventually ends for everyone. Then there is Ida Lupino's Elvira, a hard woman who leads a hard life with a veneer of strength who is also sensitive and needs the affection of her wayward husband Ace. Even Joe Don Baker turns in a great turn as Curly, the son who stayed behind to build a legacy and provide for the family - even if no one seems to appreciate the effort. Robert Preston is the only one who doesn't quite work for me - but that's largely because I keep expecting him to tell me about the trouble with a capital "T" right here in River City.
At the end of the day, Junior Bonner is a fine film. Certainly not Peckinpah's best efforts, but nowhere near as ridiculous as something like Convoy. Simply put, it tries to do too much and gets distracted by too many barroom brawls and silly montages that takes the focus away from some genuinely well-scripted drama and rodeo excitement. But there's still a lot of good to the film and there's plenty of enjoyable material for viewers to rope and hold onto. Just don't expect wild exploits like bank heists or hyper-violence with visceral montages, this isn't that sort of Peckinpah film.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Junior Bonner arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber and their Studio Classics label. Pressed onto a Region A BD-50 disc, the disc is housed in a standard sturdy Blu-ray case and comes with a booklet containing cover artwork for other Studio Classics releases. The disc loads to a static image main menu with traditional navigation options.
I wasn't able to ascertain the vintage of this 2.35:1 1080p transfer, but if I had to bet it was done within the last few years. Not quite as clean and revealing as a more modern 4K scan, but at the same time, it's no slouch. Details are strong throughout, there are a few softer scenes here and there, but nothing to get upset over. Grain is apparent throughout without ever becoming too noisy nor is there ever any evidence of digital smoothing or any other unsightly processing. Scenic location shots are outright beautiful - the previously mentioned bulldozer montage is a standout moment. Colors are of the early 70s style with stronger yellows and browns with slightly muted primaries. Flesh tones can appear on the pink side of things from time to time, but nothing too terrible to suggest that reds were pushed unnaturally. Damage is minimal, just a bit of speckling here and there and a couple barely noticeable scratches. All around this is a very good transfer that could only be made better if it were given a new restoration. As it stands, fans should be pleased.
The DTS-HD MA 2.0 mix provided for this film suitably gets the job done. The worst I can say about it is that it is a bit quiet at times. While I didn't have to keep a thumb on the volume, I did have to turn things up past where I normally keep my system set. Once the volume is at a level where you can comfortably hear dialogue exchanges, everything plays out fine. Rodeo scenes really punch up the mix letting atmospherics have their day in the sun. There is a genuine feeling of liveliness and excitement during these sequences. Where it counts during dramatic beats, there's no trouble hearing what's going on. Other than some mild hiss during the quietest bits, there's no age-related wear and tear to report.
Junior Bonner is given a terrific bonus feature package. It's really nice to see that Kino Lorber's Studio Classics line has moved beyond being a simple MOD slate and has genuinely embraced the potential for being a premier outlet for quality releases for unsung gems that deserve their day in the HD sun. The audio commentary is a big stand out of this release as are the numerous documentary features and Peckinpah retrospectives. Fans of the film will absolutely want to dig into this material.
Audio Commentary Moderated by Nick Redman and featuring Peckinpah authors Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, David Weddle.
Passion & Poetry: Rodeo Time (HD 55:50) Serving as a pseudo post-release behind the scenes feature, cast, crew, and family members of the production with screenwriter Jeb Rosebrook offer up some terrific insights about the film, it's production adn release.
Junior Bonner on the Set (HD 5:04) A collection of behind the scenes shots of the making of the film.
Junior Bonner Posters (HD 4:51) A collection of images from the film's marketing materials.
Passion & Poetry: Peckinpah Anecdotes (HD 25:42) Featuring interviews with Ernest Borgnine, L.Q. Jones, Kris Kristofferson, Allie McGraw and others, this feature focuses on what it was like to work with Peckinpah.
Junior Bonner Trivia (HD 4:46)
Animated Image Gallery (HD 3:45)
US Radio Spots (1:59)
T.V. Spot (HD 00:31)
Theatrical Trailer (SD 2:30)
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia Trailer (SD 1:58)
Convoy Trailer (HD 3:47)
It's difficult to know where to stand with a film like Junior Bonner. If there's a complaint to be made is that it is merely a mediocre film with a terrific pedigree of talent both in front and behind the camera. Peckinpah and McQueen would find themselves on better footing with The Getaway, but this family drama set against the backdrop of a rodeo championship is still pretty decent. Perhaps not quite as good as it could have been, but still a worthwhile endeavor. Kino Lorber Studio Classics has delivered a pretty great release of Junior Bonner with a solid A/V presentation as well as a host of worthwhile bonus features to look at. Fans of the film should be very happy with this release. Newcomers may want to give it a look first, but a blind buy isn't out of the question.