“Nevada Smith” begins mediocrely, caries on badly, and ends hysterically with Karl Malden bleeding to death in a mountain stream and screaming at Steve McQueen. Yes I just spoiled the ending, but I also saved you from sitting through two hours of convoluted chaos. This film takes a simple premise and turns it into a jumbled Western that you’ll ultimately forget.
At the beginning of the film we meet Max Sands who is played by Steve McQueen. Max (again played by 35 year old, blond-haired, blue-eyed McQueen) is a 16 year old, half-Kiowa boy, and if that’s hard to imagine then buckle up because this movie will push your suspension of disbelief to the limit. Max’s parents are tortured to death by three desperadoes, (Karl Malden, Martin Landau, and Arthur Kennedy.) Burning with rage, Max sets out on a very long quest to get revenge on the men who killed his family. Along the way he meets Jonas Cord (Brian Keith) a gunsmith who transforms the kid into a gunslinger in a two-minute montage. Now able to wield a gun, Max sets out on a journey that is 40 minutes too long. As he journeys across the West, Max doe despicable things to get revenge and ignores everyone who tells him he should stop. In the end after being a terrible person Max rides away into the sunset with no ramifications whatsoever.
The most frustrating part of “Nevada Smith” is that it’s a missed opportunity. There are countless wonderful Westerns about revenge that manage to keep it simple, There are great Westerns which contemplate the morality of the hero’s actions. “Nevada Smith” is neither of these films. Instead it’s a movie that fails to pick a lane. It could just be a simple 90-minute revenge Western where Steve McQueen hunts down the bad guys. Yet the film wastes so much time pointlessly moralizing on McQueen’s actions, and in the end it leads nowhere because McQueen’s character doesn’t change.
Ultimately, “Nevada Smith” is a mediocre picture that lacks all tonal cohesion. The cinematography is gorgeous, but it feels wasted on this film where everyone’s just muddling through. McQueen just stands there and seems happy to cash a check. Karl Malden chews the scenery, and everyone else spews bland dialogue that you’ll eventually forget. Sadly the film is a missed opportunity, and really there are better Westerns out there.