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(2003) (Robert Duvall, Kevin Costner) (R)

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Drama/Action: Two cattlemen set out to get revenge on those who killed and wounded some of their workers.
It's the 1880s and Boss Spearman (ROBERT DUVALL) and Charley Waite (KEVIN COSTNER) have been fellow cattlemen for nearly a decade and are currently moving their cattle and horse herds with the help of Mose Harrison (ABRAHAM BENRUBI) and 16-year-old Button (DIEGO LUNA). Without any land they call their own, they move throughout the open range, allowing their livestock to graze in vacant fields.

That doesn't sit well with Denton Baxter (MICHAEL GAMBON), an Irish immigrant who runs a small town with the aid of his hired gunslinger Butler (KIM COATES) and the local law, Sheriff Poole (JAMES RUSSO). When Mose doesn't return from their town after heading there for supplies, Boss and Charley discover that he's been jailed and beaten by Baxter's men. With the medical aid of Doc (DEAN McDERMOTT) and Sue Barlow (ANNETTE BENING), they patch up Mose and leave town, but have no intentions of backing down.

It gets worse when they realize that the locals intend to either take or disperse their herds. Just as they confront a bunch of Baxter's thugs, others severely wound Button and kill Moses and their dog. After leaving Button with Sue, the two cattlemen - with the aid of a few locals including old timer Percy (MICHAEL JETER) - set out to get their revenge on those who've wronged them.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
As a reviewer who edits his own writing, I can attest to how difficult it is to police one's own work. Without time and space away from any project, as well as the related inability to examine something with pure objectivity, one is prone to make mistakes and not perform enough editing or truncating (that last sentence is proof positive of that).

Accordingly, I can only imagine how much that problem is magnified for filmmakers, particularly if they're wearing more than one positional hat on the set. After all, a great deal more blood, sweat and tears - not to mention time, money and outside pressure - is involved. All of which means the likelihood of disaster is ever greater if one doesn't get, listen to and/or follow some outside opinions.

Such is the case with "Open Range," the latest film not only directed by Kevin Costner ("The Postman," "Dances With Wolves"), but also one in which he stars and produces. To be fair, the film is far from being a disaster, as there are various things that are good about it. Yet, it also has its problems, many of which are likely to cast some doubt about whether it will resurrect the once popular but recently dormant Western genre.

The chief problem is the film's excessive length and slow pace. It's hard to say whether editors Michael J. Duthe ("3000 Miles to Graceland," "Stigmata") and Miklos Wright ("3000 Miles to Graceland") were afraid to make or at least propose trimming suggestions or whether Costner refused to listen and/or heed the advice. Perhaps it was a combination of that or any number of other facts, but whatever the case, the film is for the most part butt-numbingly pace-impaired.

I have no problem with slow moving films if they have some substance or depth to keep one interested (and I actually prefer some such films to those that promote MTV style editing and rapid pacing). Unfortunately, and despite Costner's obvious efforts to the contrary, the film comes up short in such regards.

No matter what few bits of plot and character exposition or exploration are present, there simply isn't enough story in novice writer's Craig Storper's screenplay to warrant or support the film's running length of nearly 140 minutes.

Simply put, the plot concerns some "free-range" cattlemen - played by Costner, Robert Duvall ("Gods and Generals," "Assassination Tango"), Diego Luna ("Y Tu Mama Tambien," "Frida") and Abraham Benrubi ("George of the Jungle," "Twister") - who run into problems with some locals headed by Michael Gambon ("Charlotte Gray," "Gosford Park") and James Russo ("The Ninth Gate," "The Postman"). They then want revenge once things turn ugly, nasty and lethal.

That's it. It's a story of vindication that's as old as the hills - or least movie Westerns - and thus we know what to expect (a big shoot-out at the end). The glaring problem is that it takes forever to set up that basic premise and then get its inevitable and predictable conclusion rolling.

Costner and Storper throw in some bits about Charley's shady past as a hitman of sorts, all of which is supposed to make him seem more dangerous and rev up our interest for the violent finale. Then there's the lame love angle subplot between Costner and Annette Bening ("American Beauty," "In Dreams") who plays the local spinster of sorts.

That, coupled with the strong yet secretive friendship between the male leads, means it's not difficult to see that they're aiming more for a character-driven film rather than a plot-heavy experience. All of which is fine and dandy if that can carry the film. At times, it - and some decent, occasional humor - does just that. At others, however (including the entire, misguided love angle that should have been jettisoned), it only tries one's patience.

The topnotch production values (gorgeous cinematography, good set design, etc.) and especially the big shootout at the end nearly make sitting through the preceding material worth it. Thankfully shot in a gritty rather than highly stylized and/or over-edited fashion, the big scene stands tall among related moments in other Westerns.

My only gripe is that the villains aren't personified enough - they're barely more than one-dimensional characters compared to say, Daniel Day-Lewis' one in "Gangs of New York" - to make their comeuppance as vicariously "enjoyable" as it could and should have been.

Beyond them, the performances by the rest of the major players are solid, with the possible exception of Costner himself. While one's overall view of the actor will play a great part in their acceptance of him in this, his fourth Western role, I found my opinion of his acting constantly alternating (sometimes it was good, and at others only so-so). Duvall and Bening are, as usual, quite good, while the late Michael Jeter ("Jurassic Park III," "The Green Mile") obviously had fun in his supporting role.

There are enough good things about the film to balance out the bad. Nevertheless, the latter - including some hokey dialogue that will elicit unintended laughs - are so glaring and/or problematic at times that they overshadow the former.

Had thirty to forty minutes of excess fat been trimmed - including with the entire love interest angle, no matter its thematic intentions, and the incredibly long denouement - this could have been a tight and engrossing resurrection of a nearly dead genre. As it stands, the film has its moments, but the overall effort feels too bloated, yet oddly somewhat vacuous for its own good. "Open Range" rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed August 12, 2003 / Posted August 15, 2003

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