By Richard Roeper

Chicago Sun-Times

“Hostiles”

133 minutes

Rating: R (for strong language and violence)

If “The Walking Dead” hadn’t been taken by the zombie-apocalypse comic book series and TV show, it would be the perfect title for this most violent and brutal of Westerns.

For even though the retiring U.S. cavalry captain, the Cheyenne chief and the frontier widow who are thrust together in writer-director Scott Cooper’s unforgiving tale continue to breathe the air and make their way through the days and nights, they’ve known so much pain and heartache and bloodshed, they’re hardly among the living anymore.

Every morning when the sun hits their eyes and their pasts are there waiting for them, they’re the Waking Dead.

When it comes to laser-focused technique so intense it’s almost unnerving, Christian Bale might be second only to Daniel Day-Lewis among modern actors — and Bale is at the top of his game (and perfectly cast) as Capt. Joseph J. Blocker, a legendary soldier who never once flinched at doing what needed to be done in decades of deadly confrontations with Native Americans.

The year is 1892. The ever unsmiling, exhausted Blocker, sporting a heavy goatee, is playing out the string at a post in Fort Berringer, New Mexico, counting the days until his retirement.

Blocker is given one last assignment, and to his mind, it’s the most offensive task he’s been given.

For the last seven years, the Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his extended family, including children and grandchildren, have been incarcerated at Fort Berringer.

Chief Yellow Hawk is dying of cancer and, under orders from President Benjamin Harrison, the chief and his family are to be escorted from New Mexico to his ancestral land in Montana so he can be buried with dignity. Blocker, who despises the chief and his people, who has seen many a friend die at their hands, must lead the small team of soldiers charged with escorting and protecting them.

Along the way, the party encounters Rosamund Pike’s Rosalie Quaid, who is covered in blood and in a state of shock after a band of Apaches murdered her husband and her children and burned down their ranch.

The party has no choice but take Rosalie with them, as leaving her behind would be sentencing her to a sure death. They also wind up transporting a disgraced former soldier, Sgt. Willis (Ben Foster), who has been sentenced to hang for war crimes.

It’s the stuff of John Ford Westerns, of the best Clint Eastwood films of the genre.

Bale is as good as he’s been, especially in the film’s final 30 minutes or so, when Capt. Blocker surprises us and no doubt surprises himself.

“Hostiles” is not for the faint of heart, but it winds up being about having a heart in a world that seems almost without hope.

19364644