Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 1:56 - Released 12/25/00

I get the impression that every once in a while every actor (and perhaps every director) feels the need to add an old-style western film to his or her list of projects. Matt Damon, who has risen to the pinnacle of stardom in such decidedly non-western movies as Good Will Hunting, Saving Private Ryan, and The Talented Mr. Ripley, puts the requisite notch in his belt with All The Pretty Horses, a romantic tale set in 1949 about a man who seeks the rugged life of a cowboy and finds heartache and hardship to be his most constant companions. The same belt-notching action is evident by co-star Henry Thomas, director Billy Bob Thornton (Sling Blade) and writer Ted Tally (Silence Of The Lambs), none of whom has done a great deal of work west of the Mississippi so far.

What emerges from this team of greenhorns is a perfectly serviceable piece of cinema, but one not particularly astounding in any way, most likely because the heart and soul of the novel by Cormac McCarthy had to be excised for the sake of brevity. The sweeping nature of the production and the life-changing effect of events on the main character betrays a much richer story, but in order to fit it into the necessary 2-hour time slot, some major slicing must have taken place. The result is somehow frustrating, unfulfilling . . . one is unable to reconcile the gravity of the plot with the glossed-over quality of its presentation.

Damon plays John Grady Cole, a young Texas rancher whose divorced father has just passed away, leaving his entire estate to his ex-wife who intends to sell the huge parcel of land to an oil company. With no ties binding him, John decides to seek work as a cowboy in Mexico, where (at least in 1949) "it isn't all fenced in and marked off." Joined by his best friend, Lacey Rawlins (Thomas), the two men steal a pair of horses from what used to be John's property and head south. Soon after they cross the border, they land a job on the expansive ranch of the wealthy and prominent Don Hector Rocha y Villareal (Rubén Blades), and impress everyone with their ability to break 16 horses in 4 days. I think my kid did that once when we gave him a cowboy toy set for his birthday.

Rocha invites John to assist him in some horse-breeding decisions; however, when John starts getting romantically involved with Rocha's beautiful daughter Alejandra (Penélope Cruz, All About My Mother), he gets in trouble with her protective aunt (Miriam Colon). Before long, thanks to their previous association with a 16-year-old outlaw named Jimmy Blevins (a show-stealing Lucas Black), John and Lacey find themselves in a Mexican prison, fighting for their lives against not only the abusive guards, but the other prisoners.

This film has all the hallmarks of a good western (horses, gunfights, Mexican senioritas, tortilla chips), and it seems well-researched for the period. Damon and his supporting cast all display good work. It is full of sweeping, beautiful vistas and music that reminds me of an old Marlboro commercial (you know, from back when they were allowed on TV). But the story seems rushed, and therefore somehow unappealing. We are not given enough time to fall in love with Alejandra along with John, so we can't see why he's so willing to put his life on the line for her. We don't know the history of the relationship between John and Lacey, so we don't know why they're so attached. And young Lucas Black, who played opposite director Thornton in Sling Blade, spends just enough time on the screen to get us interested before he disappears. As its childlike title suggests, All The Pretty Horses is pleasing to the eye, but it lacks the character(s) to make it memorable. ***½

Copyright 2001 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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