'The Cowboy Way' touts old-fashioned values badly

June 03, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Sited somewhere between "Midnight Cowboy" and "High Noon," "The Cowboy Way" is a movie that doesn't know what time it is. And whatever time it is, it probably isn't time to let two gun-happy bozos loose on the streets of Manhattan, where they solve any problem with indiscriminate applications of hot lead.

The movie, you may be surprised to discover after experiencing both trailers and a TV ad campaign, is a thriller-comedy that turns out to be a lot more thriller than comedy. Its laughs are few and far between, at least when the scriptwriters are trying to come up with them -- I saw stars Keifer Sutherland and Woody Harrelson interviewed on a Washington TV channel and they were far funnier there than at any time in the film.

Basically, they play two rodeo cowpokes -- Sonny, the smart one (Sutherland), and Pepper, the dumb one (Harrelson, in a stretch) -- who, under the flimsiest of plot pretexts, venture to Manhattan in search of a missing hired hand whose daughter, a Cuban refugee, has become victimized by sweat-shop gangsters. But what's really going on is that the cowboy's direct Western ways of doing things are culturally shocking to the conflicted New Yorkers who (zzz-zzzz) have forgotten all their instincts.

In other words: They still kill the same old way. Underneath it -- far underneath it -- the movie is selling a profound nostalgia for old-fashioned masculine values that have been feminized, industrialized, illegalized, urbanized and liberalized out of existence. The movie contrives to set its heroes up against an unprincipled modern gangster, suggesting that against such an antagonist, the temporizing methodology of modern law enforcement is pointless.

Of course, it doesn't have the guts to argue this reactionary conceit literally -- as Don Siegel did in the similarly themed "Coogan's Bluff," back when Clint Eastwood was a renegade star, not a critic's best pup. Instead, it buries the notion under a smarmy gloss of bad comedy, incoherent plotting and sloppy detail work.

Admittedly, movies don't have to be ultra accurate, but if the filmmakers chose a natural world as their setting, they ought to at least address its physics. I had to laugh when someone "pawns" a batch of handguns and then someone else routinely gets the guns out of pawn with the presentation of a pawn ticket. Yeah, right. This in New York City, which has strenuously controlled legal access to handguns since 1916!

The one amusing subplot finds the sublimely beautiful Harrelson bumbling around the fashion world in his tight-fitting, bun-blasting jeans and boots, like "Midnight's" Joe Buck on his best day. Harrelson has a good deal more sex appeal than Jon Voight but he doesn't have Voight's skills, and he can't bring this sequence to anything meaningful. Meanwhile, director Gregg Champion's vision of debauched high fashion is so coarse and overblown it grates. But actress Marg Helgenberger, playing a modeling agency owner who sees the potential in the exotic planes, Roman profile and lightless eyes of the Harrelson mug, is quite good.

The other good performance comes from Dylan McDermott as the ambitious crime underboss and prime villain of the piece. Usually a juvenile second lead, as in "In the Line of Fire," where he was Clint Eastwood's doomed younger partner, McDermott is the only one who seems to take his work seriously. He thinks he's the star of the film, and conjures up a completely mesmerizing performance as an ambitious criminal with odd touches of reluctance and unsureness. Would that the movie had been about him.

But it's not and it's not even really about Harrelson and Sutherland. It's about a single high-concept image, much bandied about in the ad campaigns, and really the point of the whole thing -- an image of stark incongruity: cowboys on horses galloping up a great Gotham avenue. I liked it better when "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" tripped the light fantastic on some bright boulevard, and better yet when the Marshmallow man did the same in "Ghostbusters." But, as a weirdly wired image that sums up the chaotic impulses at play in American pop culture, a couple of cowpokes galloping through traffic up a great urban artery does quite nicely. A shame the movie isn't up to it.

"The Cowboy Way"

Starring Woody Harrelson and Kiefer Sutherland

Directed by Gregg Champion

Released by Universal

PG-13

... **

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