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1999 Drama, rated R (US), runs 1 hour, 56 minutes

Written by Dick Cusack (inspired by "Michael Hohlhaas" by Heinrich von Kleist)
Directed by John Badham
Published by HBO Pictures

Major cast

John Cusack........Myrl Redding
L. Q. Jones........Henry Ballard
John Goodman.......Judge Tolliver
Supporting cast
John C. McGinley...Woody
Ken Pogue..........Judge Wilkins

The DVD contains a conversation with Dick and John Cusack. The feature has no subtitles or non-English dialog available.

C-Dawg says: two paws up. Definitely on my top 20 list.


There is right, and there is wrong. There is legal, and there is illegal.

In these days of government swaddling us in almost all aspects of our lives from cradle to grave, many people seem unable to realize that these concepts do not always coincide. We also tend to assume that the people to whom we entrust the power of enforcing the law and assuring that justice is done are themselves on the side of the righteous and have that as their only goal in the exercise of that power.

But what is a man to do when he finds that the long arm of the law has no interest in defending him, or even is itself the very agent that is treading on him?

Some people, regrettably fewer these days than in the past, believe that their rights to their life, property, etc., come not from their rulers but from God or otherwise inhere in all human beings, and that when government breaches its contract to protect them, that it is up to them to do so.

The Jack Bull is the story of a man who wouldn't back down when his rights were violated by the rich and powerful.

Level 1 Spoilers

The story opens introducing Cusack as Myrl Redding, who is in the business of raising and selling horses, along with his young son Cage and his two close friends and employees, Woody and a Crow Indian named Billy.

As Myrl stops in for a drink in a saloon during a trip into town, we learn that politics is the order of the day, as people are discussing whether the Wyoming territory should join the Union. We see that everyone respects Redding as a man of great integrity. All eyes turn as Henry Ballard enters. Ballard is the richest man in those parts, and not well liked. He's been around longer than anyone, founded the town of Rawlins, and has been buying up land all around, sometimes forcing ranchers to sell by denying them access to water from his properties. He's definitely in favor of the status quo, and loudly reiterates his position that there's no need for more government sticking its nose into their business. His suggestion that none of the others need to sign the petition that's circulating is not without an undertone of threat. Mryl then signs the petition, stating that he'd been ambivalent on the question but didn't want to be on Ballard's side. Ballard contemptuously throws the paper into the watering trough in the street. Thus is the stage set for the conflict to begin.

Ballard pushes first. Redding and his men are taking a bunch of horses to auction at Casper and find that Ballard has bought the land giving access to the mountain pass — and he wants Redding to pay a toll to cross. Myrl doesn't have enough money to spare and offers to pay on the way back. Ballard, thoroughly enjoying himself, offers to hold the two magnificent black stallions as security. The prize horses had already been promised to a buyer in Casper for a very handsome price. It pains Myrl to break his commitment, but he has no choice and agrees. Billy will stay with them while the rest continue on with their diminished offering.

You ever hear tell of one of them English dogs, the Jack Russell terrier dogs?
They say if'n ya get 'em riled up enough, and they sink their teeth into ya,
well now you're just gonna have to saw their jaws apart
before they let go. That right there is Myrl Redding right about now.
-- Woody to the auctioneer who asked about the stallions

On the return trip, they stop to pay the toll and reclaim the horses. Billy is nowhere about, and when the horses are finally found, Woody and Myrl are horrified. They'd clearly been harnessed and whipped and generally abused. Myrl's cries of anguish brought Ballard, who claimed that Billy had abandoned them and they weren't his responsibility. Myrl knows he's lying, and gives him two weeks to restore them to health. As Myrl and his men ride off, Ballard calls out that even if he gives him two years, he won't do it.

Back at the Redding spread, we see that Billy is laid up with some serious injuries, and he tells Myrl apologetically that he'd been forced off of Ballard's land. Naturally in this movie, all the good guys are englightened, while the bad guys are violent racists who won't have no truck with an Injun living among them.

With these two injustices in hand, Myrl makes a public demand that Ballard restore his horses, and pay Billy reparations. Unsurprisingly, Ballard fails to comply. (If he did, the movie would be over.) Myrl turns to the legal system, filing a civil suit making the same demands. He's playing by the rules, but in a loud statement to the keeper of the general store, with a couple of Ballard's men present, he says

The law will take care of Ballard.
And if the law doesn't take care of him, I'm gonna take care of him.
One way or the other, there's gonna be justice.
I will have it.
Turns out, the local judge is in Ballard's pocket, and throws out the suit without a hearing.

True to his word, Myrl doesn't let it end there. He persuades other local ranchers to stand with him before Ballard gets around to destroying them one at a time. Fifty of them ride on Ballard in a body, and are met with gunfire. Vastly outnumbered, Ballard and his men soon flee. Inaugurating what is to be his modus operandi, Myrl says

A man who treats horses this way shouldn't have a barn. Get the animals out, and burn it.

So Myrl and his posse are chasing Ballard all around the Wyoming Territory, burning houses and barns of anyone who won't cooperate in his manhunt. People start to take notice of this, including the governor who doesn't want such shenanigans to be taking place while he's welcoming a Congressional statehood delegation. He's a bit sympathetic when he hears that Redding had sent an appeal to the Attorney General after the corrupt Judge Wilkins had snubbed him, but it had been remanded back to the local jurisdiction without being read. An amnesty is prepared, to get him to come peaceably into the capital and try to get the mess straightened out.

He accepts, but once in town, the governor hears that the sheriff in Rawlins is charging Redding with murder in connection with two people that have been killed during these contretemps, and is outraged to hear that the amnesty was not well drawn up and covers those events, even though they didn't know about them at the time. He's looking for a legal way to let the charges proceed, but now Judge Joe Tolliver (John Goodman) enters the story. His position is not totally explained, but he seems to be the highest ranking judge in Wyoming. He insists that Redding is safe unless he violates the terms of the amnesty. Later, he rules that Myrl has done just that when he writes in a letter that "I will continue the fight".

Level 2 Spoilers

Myrl is brought to trial in Tolliver's court in the capital. Faced with some penny ante squabbling, the judge makes clear his philosophy and objectivism:

What's relevant here is the law, I judge cases on law. Law's the king with me, because if it wasn't, this territory, even if it becomes a state, wouldn't be fit for a prairie dog.
He soon rules from the bench in favor of Redding in his suit against Ballard, but leaves the murder charges up to a jury to decide. Unfortunately, thanks to perjurious testimony by the sheriff and others, he is found guilty of one of the counts. Speaking from the dock, Myrl makes his last statement.
I took the law into my own hands; I did it because there was none in Rawlins. I wrote my own law, but I didn't create it. In my mind, that law was there before we were born.
In pronouncing sentence, Tolliver orders that Ballard will with his own hands restore the horses to their original condition, and to Redding's satisfaction, after which Redding will be hanged by the neck until he is dead. And this is exactly what happens over the next several weeks or months.

The silver lining in this is that, on the day of the hanging, Tolliver is speaking to Judge Wilkins and tells him man to man that he intends to have him impeached.

In his last minutes with his son before ascending the gallows, Myrl rejects Cage's talk about breaking him out of there, saying that things went bad and he has to face the consequences. But then admonishes him:

Listen to me: somebody steps on your rights, go after him.
Never give up, never.
Just be smarter than I was.

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