`Wagons East!': Candy's Finale Lacks Direction

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X 1/2 "Wagons East!" with John Candy, Richard Lewis, John C. McGinley, Ellen Greene. Directed by Peter Markle. Alderwood, Everett Mall, Factoria, Kent, Lewis & Clark, Oak Tree, SeaTac Mall, Uptown, Valley drive-in. "PG-13" - Parental guidance strongly suggested; mature humor. ------------------------------------------------------------------

When Brandon Lee was filming "The Crow," he was excited to be getting the break he'd been waiting for, and his starring role in that film was an opportunity to transcend the action genre that threatened to limit him as an actor. Nobody could've known that Lee's tragic death during production would turn "The Crow" into the haunting end of a promising career.

When John Candy was filming "Wagons East!" last spring, he was forging ahead with an on-again, off-again career that contained more misses than hits, despite Candy's well-deserved reputation as one of the screen's most gifted comedians. By the time Candy died of a heart attack on the New Mexico set of this lackluster Western comedy, he probably knew it was going to be a clinker.

Although "Wagons East!" is suitably dedicated to Candy's memory, it is best forgotten in favor of his better movies . . . which in this case is just about anything else he appeared in.

This one's a turkey from the word go, beginning when the citizens of a tiny frontier town decide they've had enough of the Wild West and form an eastward wagon train to return to the comforts of civilization. Candy plays the drunken slob they hire as a wagon master; he conveniently forgets to mention that his previous experience included leading the doomed Donner party to their ghoulish fates.

There's a throw-away subplot about a promoter of westward progress (Gaylard Sartain) who hires a thug (Ed Lauter) to thwart the eastbound wagons, but it's just an excuse to rip off a bunch of tired gags from "Road Runner" cartoons. This is one of those movies that plays out with the lame progression of a terrible comedian's insufferable punchlines. You begin to feel sorry for the cast.

Candy had nearly completed his filming at the time of his death, but there are stretches of "Wagons East!" where he is conspicuously absent, leaving co-star Richard Lewis with the futile task of squeezing laughs from a pathetically unfunny script. The movie's only chuckles come from John McGinley, a normally serious actor who has a field day with his role as a flamboyantly gay frontiersman who heads back west for San Francisco. Hardy-har-har.

With credits that include such garbage as "Hot Dog . . . The Movie," director and former hockey player Peter Markle displays an utter lack of comic sensibility, robbing Candy of any opportunity to be as funny as we knew he could be. Shackled by a script that barely qualifies as bad television, the startlingly corpulent Candy had no choice but to go out with a whimper. It's certainly not his fault, and we can be thankful that this jolly clown lives on with a legacy of laughter.