North [1994]

Emperor of the North, a vivid Depression-era drama, opens with a friendly, down-home song that doesn't prepare the audience for what follows: The brutal killing of a train-hopping bum at the hands of a cruel conductor named Shack (Ernest Borgnine, Marty, The Poseidon Adventure). A hobo called A-No. 1 (Lee Marvin, Cat Ballou, The Big Heat) rises to the challenge of catching a ride on Shack's train--but his heels are dogged by a tenderfoot (Keith Carradine, Deadwood, Nashville), whose inexperience may get them both killed. Director Robert Aldrich (The Dirty Dozen, Kiss Me Deadly) has a sure feel for male behavior driven by pride, boredom, and desperation. The swagger gets a little overblown at times, but more often Emperor of the North has a gritty realism, peppered with flashes of sardonic humor and surprising compassion. Aldrich has a gift for a loose yet always watchable story, filled with engaging bit parts and offbeat incidents that flesh out the world and make the main storyline all the more compelling. Marvin and Borgnine--craggy-faced character actors deluxe--are in excellent form, but Carradine steals the movie with his bitter, callow arrogance. (Originally titled Emperor of the North Pole, a bit of hobo lingo.) --Bret Fetzer

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