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Fine casting and storytelling bring this Louis L'Amour tale to life.

Happy Trails


TNT's "Crossfire Trail" is a ripsnorting, he-man Western in the John Wayne tradition that will keep you glued to the TV screen from the opening to the closing credits. And it's no wonder. All you have to do is look at the full title of this made-for-TV movie: "Louis L'Amour's Crossfire Trail." They don't come any better at weaving a spellbinding tale of life on the American frontier than L'Amour. He invented the Hopalong Cassidy character, and his 1953 book "Hondo" was made into a movie starring John Wayne. ("Hondo" also became a short-lived TV series on ABC in 1967.) L'Amour's own life reads like a novel. Born in 1908 in Jamestown, N.D., when he was 15, he dropped out of school and headed west. After serving in the army in World War II, he took up writing about the Old West. His first Western was "Hopalong Cassidy and the Riders of the High Rock." In 1953, he wrote "Hondo" and then published 15 other novels during the next five years. He later wrote a 40-volume series tracing the saga of three families from the Old World to the New. Known for his meticulous research, L'Amour specialized in tough but appealing heroes. If you're interested in more about this seminal 20th-century author, you could do worse than read his autobiography, "Education of a Wandering Man," published a year after his death in 1988. The producer and director of "Crossfire Trail," Simon Wincer -- who has had notable successes in movies and TV, among them "The Man from Snowy River" and "Lonesome Dove" -- has produced a story worthy of L'Amour's original. In addition to keeping the story taut and dramatic, capturing the grandeur and epic proportions of the western landscape, and moving the plot along with surgical economy, Wincer assembled a cast that, for the most part, served him -- and the viewer -- well. Tom Selleck stars as Rafe Covington, the stereotypical restless wanderer who vows to keep a promise made to a dying friend. His loyalty to his friend takes him and his sidekicks from a sailing ship out of San Francisco to a small town in Wyoming, where his friend's widow is about to be hornswaggled by a two-faced swindler. Selleck's increasingly craggy face serves him well in "Crossfire Trail." But he's also enough of an actor to capture a bit of the John Wayne swagger and reticence that is obligatory for a L'Amour hero. Virginia Madsen brings the right amount of dewy innocence and steel up her spine to the role of the widow, and Wilford Brimley ("The Firm"), David O'Hara ("The District") and Christian Kane ("Angel") transcend the cliches to give substance to the part of Covington's cohorts. The one flaw in casting is Mark Harmon as the villain, who seems to have stopped maturing as an actor about the time he did "Beyond the Poseidon

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