What's with all these summertime Westerns? The cheesy Maverick and the stilted Even Cowgirls Get the Blues have already tumbled into town, while City Slickers: The Legend of Curly's Gold and Wyatt Earp a la Kevin Costner aren't far behind. Add even the late John Candy, who wrangled himself a saddle spoof, Wagons East, set for August release, and well, pardner, yee-haw. Woody Harrelson and Kiefer Sutherland actually say that (or something like it) when they're not spitting chaw in The Cowboy Way, an entertaining urban action-comedy that owes as much to Beverly Hills Cop as to Crocodile Dundee.
This means that although The Cowboy Way doesn't tell the most original story of adventurous, independent straight-shooters out of their element, its giddy-up ridings, slow-motion ropings, barroom brawls, square-jawed showdowns, runaway trains and headings-off-at-the-pass -- all occurring in New York City -- are a kick. But what really makes the film fun is the leads. Harrelson is irresistible as a chomping, strutting, fun-loving good old boy who talks a lot without having much to say; the fact that he's not shy about baring his pecs as well as his peccadilloes helps him hold the movie. Sutherland, in a less flashy role as the strong, silent type, stands tall with grit and integrity; he so fully inhabits his character that he can even make lodging a smoke behind the ear before hunkering down believable.
In the functional exposition, we learn that Pepper (Harrelson) and Sonny (Sutherland) are New Mexico roping champs on the outs with each other; it seems that Pepper got drunk and pulled a no-show at the national roping finals, and Sonny, who wanted to use the prize money to buy a ranch, won't forgive him. Sonny has to, though, when their old friend Nacho (Joaquin Martinez) suddenly vanishes to the badlands of New York, trying to rescue his beautiful Cuban daughter from the sweatshop in which villainous businessman Stark (Dylan McDermott) forces illegal aliens to work after smuggling them into the country. The bulk of the movie -- and its raison d'etre -- is the buddy trip to the big city, where, bickering all the while, the roughriders must brave rude cabbies, scuzzy phone booths and overpriced hotels before saving the day.
Sometimes Bill Wittliff's screenplay hits the spot, as when the cowboys, looking for cheap lodgings, think they've found a "motel" in the Waldorf-Astoria. There's also a funny running joke involving Pepper's amazement at the fact that New Yorkers don't accept personal checks. Too often, though, Wittliff takes the easy way out; he also strains too hard, as when he tries to work in a side trip to a fashion show so that Pepper can horse around, or when he has Pepper order a steak by saying, "Knock its horns off, wipe its nasty old ass and plunk it down right here." That these labored moments work at all owes a lot to Harrelson.
Director Gregg Champion likewise lapses into overexertion, not in the least by having Harrelson sample wine by gargling it. Champion also lets the usually terrific cinematographer Dean Semler shoot scores of unnecessary closeups. But Champion knows the thrill of horses at full stride in Midtown chasing a shanghaied subway across the Manhattan Bridge. He also makes good use of a Times Square billboard and gets solid supporting performances from the likes of Marg Helgenberger, Luis Guzman and especially Ernie Hudson as a friendly mounted policeman who always wanted to be Bill Pickett.
Sure, you might notice that the cowboys magically know their way around the city during the exciting climax or that there's no need for the bad guy's subplot grudge against his boss -- or for him to have a boss at all. But for every hole in the story there's a delight, such as playwright Christopher Durang's snooty waiter, exasperated by his ice-with-wine clientele, or Pepper's asking Sonny in the heat of a shootout if they should lock their pickup.
The Cowboy Way.
Directed by Gregg Champion. Starring Woody Harrelson and Kiefer Sutherland.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.