Blackthorn is one of the cleanest westerns that I have ever seen. I don't mean the content, like the language or the violence; I mean the sets, the actors, and even the dirt look polished and cleaned-up as it were prepared for a commercial. That might work for a John Wayne picture, but modern westerns need a little grime. Having recently seen the down-in-the-dirt reality of Kelly Reichart's frontier adventure Meek's Cutoff, this movie comes off a little phony. Even the gunshot wounds have a little too much preparedness to them
Blackthorn presents a "what-if" scenario that might be potentially interesting. What if the notorious outlaw Butch Cassidy wasn't gunned down in Bolivia in 1908, but survived his wounds and lived incognito under the assumed name James Blackthorne? That's the idea here, the movie is set 20 years after his legendary death and finds the elder Cassidy, played by the ever-reliable Sam Shepard, to be a man who, after all these years, still has the pep and cleverness that made him famous. This is not a follow-up, by the way, to George Roy Hill's 1968 film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but one might be tempted to think so. Fans of that film wouldn't find this a worth follow-up anyway.
We first meet the legendary outlaw still living in Bolivia in a kind-of blissful retirement under his assumed name, living (and sleeping) with his Mexican housekeeper Yana (Magaly Solier) and frequently checking out the town's wanted posters just in case his own mug turns up. But something is nagging at the old man and he longs to return to the United States, to a son that he frequently writes letters to. Why he needs to return to the states isn't very clear. He seems to have an okay life there in Bolivia, why did he need to pull up stakes? I suppose, if he stayed in Bolivia, the movie wouldn't set out of the dusty trail for gunfights and pretty horses.
On the road, Butch's plan of traveling back to America is undone by a wet-behind-the-ears mining engineer named Eduardo who scares off Butch's horse whose saddlebags contained his retirement. Butch knows that the kid has robbed a rich man and leads him down a mine shaft where he has hidden it. Eduardo needs protection from the millionaire's head hunters who want the money back. Butch doesn't need this kind of heat especially when the pursuit gets the attention of McKinley, an agent of the old Pinkerton Gang, who has been tracking him these past 20 years.
All of this sounds more interesting than it plays out. There's nothing in this movie that is really distinctive. It is your garden-variety, standard shoot-em-up, nothing that suggests that this is Butch's story. Throughout the picture we get flashbacks to the good old days, to Butch and his outlaw buddy The Sundance Kid. Those scenes are propped up to show up the glory years, but they don't seem to have a point.Shepard does an okay job at playing the lead, but there's something too polished and relaxed about this Butch Cassidy. One might think that a notorious outlaw who has spent two decades looking over his shoulder might seem a little tense or a little more cautious. Plus, someone with his past might have eyes that would suggest a little more regret. This whole movie comes off at that level. It never presents a western landscape that feels like a real place. Everything is cleaned-up and propped up to be a movie.