Predictable plot keeps 'Cowboys' from riding tall in the saddle

March 22, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

'My Heroes Have Always

Been Cowboys'

Starring Scott Glenn, Ben Johnson and Kate Capshaw.

Directed by Stuart Rosenberg.

Released by Goldwyn.

Rated PG.

**

"My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys" tries so hard, but there's not a stroke in it that isn't predictable. Its heroes have always been cliches.

It's a great movie for faces, if nothing else. Scott Glenn's looks as if it's hewn from rawhide that's been weathered on a fence post for a couple of decades. Ben Johnson's has the patina of a bronze shield from the Peloponnesian Wars, with a few whack-marks where Thucydides himself took a swordswipe at the holder. Kate Capshaw is just plain, flat beautiful, with a sort of ingratiating kindness lurking behind her perfect yet sensible eyes.

Glenn plays a busted-up rodeo bull rider named H. D. Dalton who returns to his old home town in Oklahoma to discover his daddy in a rest home, his sister married to a shallow rich boy and his ex-girlfriend conveniently widowed and looking for a fellow. He liberates the old man, insults the sister and begins to court the widow; of course everybody mistrusts him, because he has a history of vanishing when the going gets tough. As the girlfriend Jolie -- Capshaw -- says to him in the movie's best line, "You're all hat and no cattle." (If you don't get it, this probably isn't the movie for you.)

So he must redeem himself through housework, until along comes a chance to return to the back of a ticked-off Brahman bull, a throne whose reign need only last eight rough seconds for the big money to arrive.

"My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys" is a weird blend of agrarian romance, western repression and "Rocky"-style can-do athleticism, leavened with a broad streak of guy self-pity as focused on the sentimental figure of the wounded hero. Hemingway probably refined and popularized the laconic, honor-obsessed American hero-victim, following on pioneering work by James Fenimore Cooper; since then, this quiet, competent, discreetly hemorrhaging gentleman has haunted literature high and low, but he's found a special home in the American movie western.

Glenn's version of him is the movie's best shot: buttoned down, held in, pain-ennobled, lanky, hat-engulfed, twang-intense, nothing but grace under pressure and sloppiness otherwise. His emotional strategy: When in doubt, spit. H. D. is recognizably archetypal and yet fresh and believable, too. That's true of all the characters. And Ben Johnson, as H. D.'s daddy, is incredible; this royal lion doesn't get older, he gets more magnificent.

And the movie has a great sense of the physics and danger of bull riding. It portrays these large, irritable creatures not as members of the animal kingdom but as pure engines of destruction, losing glutinous drool like a leak in a diesel crankcase. The camera loves to focus on one malevolent eye as it glares out from between the slats of the pen, where the rough beast itself awaits. It's the eye that haunted Ahab's nightmare -- and H. D.'s as well.

The film has touches of genius, too, as it evokes the quiet world of the rodeo riders getting ready to ride. These guys, in jeans, boots, hats and ace bandages, are as macho as Green Berets and probably have a higher mortality rate, but their warm-ups are curiously ballet-like as they stretch and twist and slip off into Zen-like trances beyond pain and fear. Amazing stuff, amazing grace.

But no matter how considerable, such pleasures are at the margins. The story which offers them is painfully ordinary. You feel director Stuart Rosenberg's prosaic workmanship as he manipulates you half-heartedly toward H. D.'s big ride without much conviction or clarity. The long, slow-mo training montage as H. D. gets ready to face his own personal cowboy Pamplona is straight out of the distinguished oeuvres of John G. Avildsen, Sylvester Stallone and Irwin Winkler.

Despite the brilliance of the milieu and some extremely effective performances, "My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys" is all hat and no cattle.

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