Kevin Costner's latest Old West homage Open Range opens peacefully, with a crew of cowpokes caught in a summer shower on a vast Midwestern plain.
The first 15 minutes or so, with spare dialogue and lots of lazy campside footage, might suggest the film will be a measured study on the isolation of real cowboy life. But the movie eventually reveals itself as a slightly new take on the old fashioned shoot-'em-up Western.
Costner plays Charley Waite, part of a four-man crew of "free-grazing" cattle drivers who lead herds through unclaimed frontier country. Trouble ensues when the crew tangles with a greedy land baron (aren't they all?) who's quick to use a crooked town sheriff to stop all free-grazers. The old formula of attack and retaliation on both sides keeps the plot moving until the inevitable concluding gunfight, which thrills once it finally arrives. But the build-up borders on tedious.
Costner, who directed and co-produced, says he wanted to make a film that shows the truth of Old West life, complete with wagon wheels stuck in mud and small-town doctors who rarely encounter gunshot wounds. Such verisimilitude may make the historians in the audience swoon, but it doesn't always create compelling storytelling.
Annette Bening helps matters with her tense performance as a strictly business outpost nurse and Costner's unlikely love interest. But Open Range's real saving grace comes in Robert Duvall, who plays the crew's stoic team leader as equal parts humorless task master and compassionate father figure.
Costner, meanwhile, deserves some credit for sticking to his proverbial guns and not settling for a pale Dances with Wolves sequel. He crafts a believable adrenaline-fueled final sequence that deserves a place in the onscreen gun-battle annals. The movie's ultimate take on the seclusion and savagery of the era sets Open Range apart from the average feel-good Hollywood horse opera.