Cowboy Up
review by Gregory Avery, 3 January 2003

Slowly, the rider drops into the frame. The light alternates between shades of blue and grey. Ropes are drawn taut, encircle across the palms of leather-gloved hands....

I've had the most terrible time the last few weeks trying to write about the movie Cowboy Up, which, after much wrangling, has recently and finally bowed on home video. It's not a bad movie; in fact, it's rather good for the most part, and in some ways better than a lot of the stuff I've seen thrown onto theatrical screens during the past year and thereby provoking a rather scabrous year-end article by Peter Travers in Rolling Stone. Even though most of the action takes place in the world of professional rodeo, Cowboy Up, which has its flaws, hardly qualifies as part of the steaming pile of do-do that Travers writes about. I've had trouble jotting off a few hundred words to extol it one way or the other. Leave us first look at the facts:

Hank (Kiefer Sutherland) and Ely (Marcus Thomas) are grown brothers whose father, Reid Braxton (Pete Postlethwaite), was a champion competition bull-rider. They've both followed his lead into the circuit, but Hank abandoned being a bull-rider to become a "bull-fighter", i.e. the guys in rodeo clown makeup whose job it is to prance in front of the bull once it's released from its pen into the arena and distract it, thus allowing the rider on its back to try and last out a full  eight seconds before throwing himself clear without the animal turning on him. Ely becomes injured in just such a mishap, but the impetuous youth goes right back into competition, and Hank becomes conflicted because he does not want to dictate to Ely what he should and should not do (their father, Reid, absented himself from the family years before the boys even reached adolescence), and he can also see that Ely has a genuine knack for the sport.

The film -- which began life some time ago as Ring of Fire, and there were even some preview trailers made to that extent (Cowboy Up comes from a catchphrase Reid Braxton is supposed to have used and become famous for) -- features performances from several actors who have stayed-the-course over the years , and to good effect. Sutherland's performance as Hank is some of the most genuine and thoroughly realized acting I've seen him do in a long time (he made this picture prior to his "comeback" in the T.V. series 24), and it epitomizes a character who has come to believe that it's better to be sensible and alert in life rather than battle against it, to ultimately counterproductive effect: his father, Reid, believed that the only way he could win in the arena was by "fighting" the bull from the outset, and by continuing to fight every next step of the way. (We see where it's gotten him, too -- a trailer behind a produce company building in Las Vegas, where Ely pays him a visit and Reid doesn't realize that he's talking to his own son.) The film also has two portrayals of female characters who are strong and speak their minds but are no less sensitive or appealing because of it, Melinda Dillon as Hank and Ely's mother, who heads the family's ranch in rural California (where Hank hopes to, eventually, spend all his time raising bulls for competition instead of facing them in the arena), and, as Ely's girlfriend Connie, Molly Ringwald. This is the performance that those of us who have been following her career since first seeing her some twenty years ago have been hoping she would give, one that combined her natural grace with the acting potential that often lay, untapped, beneath the surface in so many of her film appearances. One of the best things I've seen during the past year is the scene where Connie lets Ely know, in no uncertain terms, how she feels about the fact that he broke a promise he made to her while on the road, then came back home and just expected her to forgive him. Fat chance. You can see why he'd be a little hesitant over making a commitment to her, but you also can't imagine how he'd let a woman like this get away from him for a second. If Xavier Koller, the Swiss-born director whose handling of this picture is never anything less than well-observed and considered, has to direct any or all of Molly Ringwald's next pictures, by all means, let it be so.

Daryl Hannah also appears in the film, looking stunning, as a professional exhibition rider, but the plotline involving her character is, through no fault of hers, rather suddenly and abruptly abbreviated in the finished film,  and it hurts what is otherwise a perfectly good performance. I wish I could say the same about Marcus Thomas, who plays Ely. Looking like a more boyish version of Dwight Yoakum, Thomas, for whatever reason -- nerves, lack of experience -- looks out of his depth in what is a pivotal leading role, and the picture is somewhat hampered as a result of it.

The film does effectively capture a feel for the characters and the world they live in, from the way the riders and rodeo participants prepare before their turn in the arena, to the easy rapport of the Braxton brothers and the almost pastoral ambience of their home life. (This also brings up the question that Scout Foundas first posed last September in Variety as to why movie studios figure they should put their money and resources behind a deemed "bankable" movie like Stealing Harvard  while other more worthwhile pictures languish, unseen and undistributed. Nia Vardalos' labor of love, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, was still playing in theaters after most of last summer's blockbusters had closed, and word-of-mouth has spread like wildfire over Tom DeCillo's film Double Whammy since it premiered in the U.S. -- on home video -- in December.) Which leaves us with the fact that Cowboy Up is about, well, country. I have a horror of country music, an even bigger horror of line dancing (which makes a brief, hackle-raising appearance in one scene in the film). I've never particularly liked Westerns ("The Western is an infantile genre," John Simon wrote, churlishly), which causes consternation among friends who happen to think highly of John Ford pictures. (I've never even been able to sit through Hatari!, Howard Hawks' African-set Western. Sorry, Sean.) Perchance then, in the fullness of time, if I fail the final judgment and the chips are stacked against me, I may be consigned to the fiery pit where, to the sounds of Wanderin' Magooch and his Texas Playboys singing such standards as "My Baby Was a Heifer (But My Wife's a Texas Rose)", I will have to spend eternity chained to a bucking mechanical bull while having to swing a ten-gallon hat in one hand and yell kai-yai-yippie-kai-yay. Either that, or a multiplex where every screen is showing the 1979 remake of The Champ.

Directed by:
Xavier Koller

Starring:
Kiefer Sutherland,
Marcus Thomas
Daryl Hannah
Melinda Dillon
Russell Means
Molly Ringwald
Pete Postlethwaite

Written by:
James Redford

Rated:
PG - 13 - Parents
Strongly Cautioned.
Some material may
be inappropriate for
children under 13..

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