Country western singer Kenny Rogers's few forays in front of the camera haven't exactly rendered him indelible in the minds of movie fans. He starred in the 1981 TV movie COWARD OF THE COUNTY, the blandly regarded MacShayne series in the 1990s, and the genial 1982 theatrical release SIX PACK. And, in the course of the GAMBLER series (the role he's best known for), he embodied Brady Hawkes, the savvy, card-shuffling protagonist of five television films. Then, in 1993, he made RIO DIABLO. In this CBS made-for-television western, Kenny Rogers played even further against type as he took on with relish the role of the ill-mannered and coldly calculating Quentin Leech.
Mere moments after young farmer Benjamin Taber (Travis Tritt) weds his lovely Mexican bride Maria (Laura Harring), their tiny town of Del Rio is rocked by a desperate shoot-out between its citizens and a gang of fleeing bank robbers. One of the many resulting fatalities is believed to be Maria. Benjamin, seeking revenge, bumps into Quentin Leech (Kenny Rogers), an avaricious, foul-tempered but very canny bounty hunter. Leech is out to capture the bank robbers, who've accrued a nice bounty. Even though Benjamin threatens him at rifle-point - thereby living up to Leech's assessment of Taber being "dumb as a headless chicken" - Leech allows him to tag along. As they wend their way in pursuit, a run-in with an outlaw raises the possibility that Benjamin's wife may yet be alive. Benjamin is hopeful, but does Leech give a fig about that? Or, with him, is it all about the reward money?
I liked Quentin Leech from the very first scene, as he masquerades as a man of the cloth. This is a very well done showcase role for Kenny Rogers, who grabs his nice guy image by the throat and clubs it zestfully with a gun barrel. As fleshed out by Rogers, Quentin Leech is full of vinegar and rancor and harbors a general resentment against the world. I didn't know Kenny had the capability to go all flinty-eyed. Point blank, Kenny Rogers' screen presence carries the film.
Travis Tritt, then a superstar country singer, makes his film debut here, and I guess he's decent enough and relaxed enough in front of the camera. The third country singer is Naomi Judd - the lovely mom in the mother and daughter act, the Judds (and also mother to actress Ashley Judd) - and she nicely plays the bit role of Flora Mae Pepper, proprietor of a desert establishment of ill repute, which also doubles as neutral ground where violence and shows of weaponry are vigorously frowned upon. Okay, so maybe Naomi's delivery of her lines is a bit stilted, but I choose to give her a break. The rest of the cast are regular actors, rounded out by Bruce Greenwood, who plays the venomous younger brother in the Walker gang, and Stacy Keach, who has a miniscule part as a rival bounty hunter.
With the number of high profile country singing celebrities here (believe me, they were big back then), there's a tendency to dismiss RIO DIABLO as a whim-indulging, self-aggrandizing platform. But, make no mistake, RIO DIABLO is a gritty and fairly entertaining little western. The shoot-em-up sequences may be pedestrian and infrequent, but the fun lies in watching our lead star, the normally urbane and benign country singer (and erstwhile chicken restaurant owner), coldly bracing inhospitable sheriffs, shifty bartenders, and the bad men of the Old West. Kenny Rogers may be grey-bearded and stout, but he's neither cute nor amiable, not here anyway. He's quite convincing as he channels his charisma into this grim and very practical collector of bounties, who often likes to offer his targets "one, maybe two, choices" but really leaving them only one. So, yeah, why not give this one a try? RIO DIABLO may be the closest you'll ever see Kenny Rogers do some intense scenery chewing.