“One Ranger” could have been made 40 years ago, and that’s a big part of whatever appeal it has.
Back in the day, probably in the late 1980s, this action thriller about a legendary Texas Ranger getting tangled up with international bad guys and government agents would have bombed in theaters but developed a cult following on VHS. It would have starred Chuck Norris. Or maybe it would have starred Nick Nolte, whom star Thomas Jane’s mirrored shades, walrus mustache and gravelly character voice seem to be deliberately channeling. Nolte starred as a Texas Ranger in 1987’s “Extreme Prejudice,” a film that deserves more credit than it gets for reimagining the Western in modern American terms that continue to be used today, in everything from pulp fiction and video games to TV shows and movies (the “Sicario” films especially). The heroes are still square-jawed badasses with A Code of Honor, but they ride in four-wheeled drive vehicles rather than on horseback, and they’re mostly trying to keep trespassers off a gigantic piece of fenced-in property, the United States of America. They’re tough and arrogant, verging on mean (“You talk more than my ex-wife,” the hero of this one snarls at a chatty prisoner). The bad guys are so ruthless than they can be comfortably killed by the bushel, and there’s still an advantage to being the quickest on the draw.
The writer and director, former stuntman Jesse V. Johnson (“Avengement”), throws audiences into the middle of action. There’s a bank robbery out in a patch of Texas territory monitored by Texas Ranger Alex Tyree (Jane) that was spearheaded by a former IRA member named Declan McBride (Dean Jagger). Alex is in the process of arresting a local thief (Gregory Zaragoza) when McBride’s gang comes driving through the area, tailed by a couple of deputies. The matter is settled by Ranger Alex commandeering the antique rifle that the thief just stole and making a series of miraculous long-distance shots. The sole survivor, the Irishman, flees to Mexico.
But no sooner has our hero had a chance to enjoy a little down time with his lady than the British government comes calling, asking Alex to travel to Mexico and extradite Declan McBride. The Mexican police won’t ordinarily allow such an extradition, but they’re willing to bend the rules in this case on the condition that Alex take the prisoner, because they respect Alex, you see? He’s special, not like the others. (Before pitching the mission to Alex, the Brits butter him up by praising “the elite investigative skills of the Texas Rangers”).
As you might imagine, the prisoner transfer does not go as planned, and Alex has to recapture McBride because he’s the only person brave enough, cool enough, and good enough to do it. “Nice hat, very subtle,” says a British “Control” officer (John Malkovich) who’s Alex’s sorta-supervisor in England. “I’ll buy you one,” Alex replies.
“One Ranger” deserves a certain amount of credit for knowing exactly what it wants to be: an American Red State answer to James Bond, about a hero who’s so incredibly awesome that his reputation always precedes him, and who kinda represents the spirit of his country, even though he makes a point of letting everyone know that he’s just one a guy doing a job (ergo, the film’s title). I can’t think of a single scene that doesn’t occur in a location where action always occurs in these sorts of films (a desert road, a warehouse). Nobody’s openly racist or xenophobic, yet the various power arrangements governing all the action go unquestioned and mostly unremarked upon (except for stray comments about power and money determining outcomes in life). Virtually every character is some kind of racial, ethnic, or national stereotype, flattened out to video game NPC levels. A Ukrainian who helps Alex has a tall Nutcracker-style fur hat and tells him, “It is unwise to refuse generosity of Cossack.”
If you cranked up the Ridiculosity dial a wee bit more on Alex, he would turn into a caricature of a leathery redneck who can’t get through a day without killing somebody, but he’s the hero and you’re supposed to like and identify with him, so it never goes that far. The relationship between Alex and his British intelligence contact (Dominique Tipper) is notable for the way it lets both parties respect each other as equals without first going through a prolonged dance of dislike. About halfway through the movie, when Alex starts to feel run down and beleaguered and lets us see a bit more of the actual person inside of the “Cowboy” armor, you start to appreciate Jane’s ability to add subtlety to a character carved out of granite. There’s a nice moment with Alex in a doorway that has some of the gravitas that William Holden and Paul Newman brought to “aging master” roles after turning 40. He’s giving the film more than it’s giving him, but the viewer still appreciates the effort.
Like the Liam Neeson “Taken” series (and his other “old guy who can still kick ass” films), and like the Denzel Washington revival of “The Equalizer,” this is a pretty good reptilian brain movie, just well-done enough to keep you going until the end, which holds no surprises. It’s better with fists and guns than people, but it knows what targets it wants to hit, and its aim is sure.