Villainous varmints with smoking six-shooters proliferate in “Badlands” writer & director Justin Lee’s lame horse opera “Apache Junction” (*1/2 out of ****), starring Stuart Townsend, Scout Taylor Compton, Thomas Jane, and Trace Atkins. Clocking in at 94 lackluster minutes, this uneven, R-rated, saddle-sore sagebrusher follows a clueless tenderfoot newspaper reporter who blunders into a notorious Arizona outlaw haven.

Despite all warnings to the contrary, our intrepid heroine has come to this outlaw asylum to pen an expose for her San Francisco based newspaper about its dastardly denizens. No sooner has director Justin Lee introduced Miss Annabelle Angel (Scout Taylor-Compton of “Halloween”) as the ostensible protagonist than he shifts the focus entirely to a gunslinger wrongly accused of murder and kidnapping who becomes a target for every bounty hunter.

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Basically, “Apache Junction” is a fish out of water western. The difference is the tenderfoot isn’t a dude but a dame. Unfortunately, our damsel-in-distress spends most of her time passively watching the guys shoot themselves full of bullet holes. Eventually, she wields a lever-action, Winchester model 1876 repeater and vanquishes a villain, then discards that 15-shot weapon and starts bawling.

Lee has scripted and helmed the kind of western that would prompt John Wayne to stand up in his grave and punch him in the nose. Interestingly, no Apaches terrorize anybody in “Apache Junction,” while audiences must endure some of the most dreadful, archaic dialogue you’ve ever heard. Nevertheless, Lee stages an adequate number of shootouts that should satisfy the least discerning frontier aficionados.

Meantime, veteran western fans will applaud those moments when the gunmen pause to reload their revolvers. Sometimes, even good westerns omit these awkward but authentic moments so as not to stall narrative momentum. Although “Apache Junction” pales by comparison with Unforgiven” (1992), “Silverado” (1985), or “Appaloosa” (2000), “Logan Fulton’s widescreen cinematography makes this oater look in the same league.

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“Apache Junction” unfolds in the Arizona Territory in 1881. Incidentally, though it has nothing to do with this western, 1881 was the same year Wyatt Earp and his brothers shot it out with Ike Clanton and his kin at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone. Before our newspaper correspondent’s guide, Ebb Foliet (Edward Finlay of “2 Fast 2 Furious”), accompanies Annabelle into Apache Junction, they stop briefly at a nearby cavalry outpost.

Miss Annabelle Angel isn’t prepared for the icy reception that the army commandant, Captain Hensley (Trace Adkins of “Old Henry”), accords her. First, he specifies the only women in Apache Junction are hookers. Second, he explains “no respectable woman in her right mind ventures into these parts.” Third, he warns Annabelle he cannot protect her from the myriad evils that lurk in Apache Junction. Finally, with an incredulous frown, Hensley asks, “And this stupid article is worth possibly being raped and murdered, shot, cut, or otherwise maimed in this godforsaken desert?”

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Afterward, Ebb advises Annabelle to walk softly around Hensley and then escorts her into Apache Junction. Dressed more like an amateur Eastern schoolmarm than an ink-smeared, gimlet-eyed reporter, Annabelle emerges as a square peg in a round hole. Later, she finds herself at the mercy of three lascivious Army privates who have her cornered helplessly in a stable. Incredibly, she insists she was searching for a dried-up riverbed!

Nervously, Annabelle brandishes a long-barreled Colt .45 Peacemaker. She can barely hold without shaking, and the leering soldiers disarm her with alarming ease. Ironically, one of these sneering ruffians is Captain Hensley’s son (Nicholas Ryan), and he wedges a knife against her gullet when a stranger, Jericho Ford (Stuart Townsend of “Queen of the Damned”), interrupts them with a Winchester repeater.

Later, a soldier lies to Captain Hensley that Ford not only murdered his ornery son but also kidnapped the journalist. Saddling up, Hensley rides into Apache Junction and puts a bounty on Ford. A depraved desperado, Oslo Pike (Ed Morrone of “Hellblazers”), cuts a bargain with Hensley. This unsavory, subhuman specimen of humanity persuades the vindicative captain to pardon him of his crimes if he kills Ford.

369manifestingThe gunmen in “Apache Junction” babble more often than shoot. The impromptu gunfights spawn little suspense or tension. Despite being a supporting character, Thomas Jane of “The Punisher” (2004) gives the best performance as a saloonkeeper armed with a shotgun who never sets foot outside his bar. Wearing a derby hat, Ed Morrone delivers the second-best performance as a despicable killer cadging for amnesty.

Trace Adkins’ imposing Army captain sits behind his desk more often than astride his horse. The worst thing about “Apache Junction” is once Ford intervenes on behalf of our tenderfoot heroine, Scout Taylor-Compton’s naïve journalist languishes in the background. Initially, we’re led to believe Annabelle will prove herself a formidable feminist when all she amounts to is another dewy-eyed, damsel-in-distress.

Revitaa ProWorse, Lee cheats the audience out of a grand finale. Hensley and Ford should have swapped lead in a showstopper of a shootout. Lensed on location during the COVID-19 pandemic, “Apache Junction” had to shut down production briefly. Sadly, the filmmakers were forced to abandon their scenic New Mexico locations and finish the film in California.

Happily, Lee and company have achieved a seamless transition between two locales, so you’d never know that parts of the fictitious town of Apache Junction were photographed in two distant states. Unless you’re a hardcore western completist, who watches westerns whether they qualify as ‘good, bad, or ugly,’ you should steer clear of “Apache Junction” and see a far better western like “Old Henry.”


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