[Screen It]

(2000) (Matt Damon, Penelope Cruz) (PG-13)

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Drama: After losing his family farm, a young American sets off for Mexico with his best friend and discovers passion, opportunity and peril once they arrive there.
It's Texas in the late 1940s and John Grady Cole (MATT DAMON) has just learned that his estranged mother will be selling his family's ranch now that his grandfather has died. Yearning for the life of a farmhand, Cole sets off to Mexico with his best friend, Lacey Rawlins (HENRY THOMAS), hoping to find such work on the legendary, sprawling ranches south of the Rio Grande.

En route, they run into Jimmy Blevins (LUCAS BLACK), a troubled teen and crackerjack shot who's afraid of lightning and may or may not have stolen both his gun and the horse he's riding. After Jimmy loses the latter, the two help him retrieve the horse from its new owner, but barely end up avoiding the gun-toting posse that sets out after the teen.

The two then make it into Mexico where they find work on a sprawling ranch owned by Rocha (RUBEN BLADES). Cole and Lacey are handy around a farm, and Cole's expertise and knowledge about horses lands him a plum equestrian job working directly for the big boss. Of course, that might not have happened had the owner realized that his beautiful adult daughter, Alejandra (PENELOPE CRUZ), has eyes for the young American and vice-versa.

Alejandra's wise and knowing aunt, Dona Alfonsa (MIRIAM COLON), however, sees just that, and warns Cole not to be responsible for ruining her niece's reputation and honor since those are the only things Mexican women can control. Disregarding that advice/warning, Cole and Alejandra fall into each other's arms, prompting her family to send her off for a while to cool things off.

In the meantime, Cole and Lacey's previous association with Jimmy lands them in a Mexican jail where a corrupt Police Captain (JULIO OSCAR MECHOSO) wants them to confess to crimes they didn't commit. From that point on, the two men must deal with the repercussions that follow, as well as Cole's desire to see and be with Alejandra once again.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
Ask anyone who's ever read a novel and then watched a filmed adaptation of it and nine times out of ten they'll probably state that the movie wasn't as good as the book. That percentage, of course, will vary depending on the original novel, how well suited it is for adaptation, and how well the filmmakers did in adapting it. Nevertheless, more often than not, it's rare to find a large number of people who've enjoyed both a novel and the subsequent film based on it.

The reason for that is obvious. Novels aren't limited in time or by budgetary concerns and restraints, often take place inside the characters' heads, and allow the reader's imagination to be the work's director, if you will. Films, on the other hand, are limited by both time and budget, don't allow much, if any trips into their characters' psyches due to the medium's visual nature, and come with an attached director who's already decided what, when and how the viewer will experience the story.

Neither form is better than the other as both have their own particular strengths and weaknesses. Due to the disparities in their forms, however, one can rarely, if ever, make a movie that's completely faithful to a novel and/or will satisfy all of the fans of the original literary work.

With that in mind, most filmmakers - starting with the screenwriter who tries to figure out how to construct the adaptation and then the director and rest of the crew who must translate those words into moving images - try to find a good compromise and hope to appease and entertain fans of the novel as well as moviegoers not familiar with it.

In regards to director Billy Bob Thornton and screenwriter Ted Tally's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's best-selling novel, "All the Pretty Horses," I fall into the latter category, having neither read nor knowing much about the novel. As such, I can't attest as to how fans of the 1992 work will respond, but in the end it might not be that different from viewers who are catching the story for the first time here.

That's because this film - that's gorgeous to behold for both the cast and scenery but often disjointed and less then involving from a story or character standpoint - is yet another example of the mismatch between the two storytelling mediums. Although I'm not familiar with either the amount or arrangement of material in McCarthy's novel, it's not presented in what many would call a smooth or harmonious fashion here.

Reports have it that Thornton ("A Simple Plan," "Sling Blade") initially delivered a four-hour cut of the film from the screenplay by Tally ("The Silence of the Lambs," "Mission to Mars"), and while it may have been faithful to the source material, it was simply too long to be unleashed on unsuspecting, time-conscious viewers. The resulting two-hour version consequently has a noticeable, abridged feel to it. As such, much of the film feels rather episodic and that disjointed nature prevents it from maintaining any semblance of rhythm or momentum, let alone sweeping away the viewer by what should have been a more congruous story.

That's not to say that the individual scenes are bad. To the contrary, many of them are quite good. It's just that once we get into them, they abruptly end and then move on to the next scene, as if having to adhere to a timetable designed to cram the novel's entire story into a preset amount of cinematic time.

As a result, many of the film's more important scenes and themes don't connect as well with the audience as they should. For instance, a scene set in a Mexican prison that may have worked rather well in the novel (if present) due to the appropriate time given to it, simply doesn't hold much resonance here as the characters are in and out of the prison too fast to elicit the appropriate response from the viewer.

Likewise, the pivotal romance between the characters played by Matt Damon ("The Legend of Bagger Vance," "The Talented Mr. Ripley") and Penelope Cruz ("Woman on Top," "All About My Mother") doesn't get the amount of time it needs to work. While the two are great to look at, the chemistry between them never really gets the chance to get cooking.

While it may have in the novel and the four-hour cut, here the two meet, fall into bed and are then split up before we get a chance to root for the romance to begin. Not surprisingly, what are supposed to be heartfelt moments regarding the two end up surprisingly void of just that. While such problems don't knock this rider from its horse, they do result in a bumpy ride that's not as pleasant and engaging as it should have been.

As far as the performances are concerned, Damon seems perfectly cast for the role and character, and does a good job notwithstanding the aforementioned problems. Cruz, while gorgeous to behold, doesn't fair as well simply because her character is underdeveloped and she isn't given much of a chance to do anything with it.

Both Henry Thomas ("Suicide Kings," "E.T.") and Lucas Black ("Crazy in Alabama," "Sling Blade") are good in their respective roles, while Julio Oscar Mechoso ("Blue Streak," "Krippendorf's Tribe") adequately fills the need for an antagonist. Meanwhile, Ruben Blades ("Cradle Will Rock," "The Milagro Beanfield War") and Miriam Colon ("Gloria," "Lone Star") are also good, but feel somewhat shortchanged as far as time on the screen.

Overall, the film is clearly easy to watch from a visual standpoint, as it contains all sorts of eye candy from both a human and geographical perspective. It's just too bad that the film can't shake its disjointed and episodic feel that prevents it from being as cohesive as most viewers will probably be expecting. Decent, but not as good as it could have been, "All the Pretty Horses" rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed December 12, 2000 / Posted December 25, 2000

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