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Men Of Honor

Good guys stand tall in new releases

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Is there another film genre as intrinsically noble as the Western? Villainy flourishes as much as in any other type of film, of course, but pound for pound, the good guys always seem larger than life -- decent, down-to-earth men often in touch with themselves as much as the magnificent land that surrounds them. In most of the great Westerns, the heroes (and, on occasion, anti-heroes) only shoot in self-defense, display ample courtesy toward the women in their lives without ever condescending to them, feel a special kinship with the landscape and its occupants (be they human or animal), and occasionally aren't above a little philosophizing about the nature of violence, the passing of their old way of life, or any other subject that crosses their minds during a rare quiet moment.

This strain of nobility -- and the cowboys who embody it -- can be found in spades in Open Range, a Western that smartly uses two vets of the genre to great advantage. Robert Duvall, who looks about as comfortable on horseback as any actor who ever lived, gave one of the best performances ever created for a television production in the formidable miniseries Lonesome Dove, while Kevin Costner, the embodiment of the rugged yet sensitive all-American male until his career sailed off the tracks, contributed to the genre with Silverado, Dances With Wolves and the criminally underrated Wyatt Earp. Here, both actors are completely at ease in their characterizations.

Open Range (scripted by Craig Storper from Lauran Paine's novel The Open Range Men) doesn't expand the parameters of the genre but instead feels like a throwback to the types of Westerns that populated movie houses until their fizzle in the late '70s. Boss Spearman (Duvall) and Charley Waite (Costner) are "freerangers," cattlemen who allow their herd to roam the land with no thought to manmade claims of property possession. But as they and their loyal assistants Button (Diego Luna) and Mose (Abraham Benrubi) amble near a town ruled by vicious rancher Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon), they discover that their "law of the land" doctrine doesn't count for much, not when Baxter plans to steal their cattle and put a bullet in each of their heads.

The local sheriff (James Russo) has been bought and paid for by Baxter, but the majority of the townspeople are peaceful folks who don't care much for the corrupt cattle baron running their burg. A few even go out of their way to help Spearman and his crew, including the town's primary stable owner (the late Michael Jeter), its sole doctor (Dean McDermott), and the doctor's sister Sue (Annette Bening), a lovely spinster who's had her share of disappointments but believes she may have finally found a match in Charley.

Open Range marks Costner's third shot at directing -- following his Oscar-winning work on Dances With Wolves and his effort on the lambasted flop The Postman -- and during a movie season known for rapid jump-cuts and a decided lack of lengthy and meaningful exchanges, his lackadaisical approach will leave filmgoers either feeling appreciative or irked (there's probably no middle ground). No scene feels hurried or forced, and even though the dialogue's occasionally a bit clunky, there's a genuine maturity in the tender romance between Sue and Charley, and a strong sense of mutual respect in the camaraderie between Charley and Spearman that harkens back to the approach taken in the classic Westerns of the past (I'm thinking primarily of John Wayne's numerous efforts, particularly Rio Bravo). As for the shootouts, they're presented as clumsy and chaotic -- gritty dances of death that aren't commented upon (as in Unforgiven) but that aren't glamorized, either.

Bening does fine work as the story's stabilizing presence, while Duvall, in yet another top characterization, serves up his usual brand of folksy humor to help round out his role. Yet it's Costner (also one of the film's producers) who deserves the extra plug here. An accomplished actor who made a remarkable string of quality films between 1987 and 1991 (six, to be exact; seven if you deem Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves a guilty pleasure), Costner eventually fell out of favor with the media (who spent more time reviewing his films' hefty budgets rather than the pictures themselves) and with the public (thanks to too many snooze-inducing duds like The War and Dragonfly). Thus, in the space of approximately one decade, Costner went from being an Oscar-winning filmmaker to a man who has amassed an absurd amount of Razzie Award nominations (16). The optimist in me would like to think that a quality picture like Open Range will help pave the way back to respectability, but I won't hold my breath.

The latest fix of nostalgia based on a popular TV show from the past, S.W.A.T. is better than most, drawing up vibrant characters and offering some choice action bits before running out of steam during the third act.

Samuel L. Jackson is "Hondo" Harrelson, the veteran lawman assigned to put together a crack outfit of S.W.A.T.-sters; Colin Farrell is Jim Street, the brash up-and-comer who, implicated in a messy hostage situation that wasn't his fault, is seeking to redeem himself. He gets his chance when the group is assigned to baby-sit a captured drug lord (Olivier Martinez) who promises to pay $100 million to anyone who breaks him free. This offer seemingly brings out every criminal element in the city of Los Angeles, and for a moment, it looks like the movie will turn into a contempo retread of Walter Hill's exciting cult flick The Warriors (or a distant cousin to John Carpenter's Escape From New York), with our small band of heroes battling different pockets of villains around every corner.

No such luck. After a promising set-up that takes time to introduce us to all the team players (including ones played by Girlfight's Michelle Rodriguez and LL Cool J) and the aforementioned promise of some intriguing confrontations, the movie loses its stride. There's a double-cross that I didn't believe for one nanosecond, and the lengthy climax proves to be surprisingly bland -- even with the inclusion of a plane taxiing down LA's 6th Street Bridge.

Still, I enjoyed spending time with these characters, and the potential is there for more developed storylines. Maybe the sequel will get it right.

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