26 August 2002 | stepjohn54
I love this offbeat modern Western
Anyone looking for a run-of-the-mill film won't like this movie but it has long been one of my favorites and has become something of a cult classic.
This was the same period when Sam Peckinpah was bathing movie theaters in Max Factor blood with his edgy oaters, and some may have expected Paul Newman and Lee Marvin to deliver a gritty contemporary Western of that genre. Instead, director Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke with Newman and Voyage of the Damned with Marvin) walks us slowly and comfortably in well-worn boots through this quirky buddy film based on the novel Jim Kane by Texan-Arizonan cowboy and author J.P.S. Brown, himself an interesting character.
These two cowboy pals have unwisely agreed to transport rodeo cattle for sleazy oddball Strother Martin and Martin's shifty flunky Wayne Rogers who's equipped with a superb twang and the ugliest pair of high-water, bellbottom pants in cinematic history. Both Martin and Rogers are "all hat and no cattle" in Texas vernacular but Newman and Marvin don't figure it out until it's too late.
Blessedly, both Newman and Marvin range far from the tough, cynical personas that made them famous. Newman is a simple (minded) cowboy and Marvin is a pompously loquacious but harmlessly unhinged sidekick whose subtle paranoia is almost as interesting as his 1940s suit, tie and fedora. Marvin's narrative-like observations and expansive body language rival his superb comedic efforts displayed in Cat Ballou.
The modern cowboys are on what could be an allegorical tale of the last cattle drive at the ragged conclusion of America's hippie era. They are not driving beeves to the rail yards at Fort Worth for a hungry young country, but punching stringy calves that will be roped at rodeos across the now-tamed Southwest. We're given an early clue that Newman might not be a movie cowboy in the John Wayne mold when we see the hectored Newman cajoled for alimony from his parasitic ex-wife and learn a herd of horses he purchased is infected with a venereal disease.
He's still the lonely man of the saddle and lariat but he's living in the 1970s instead of the 1870s. Newman is not only softhearted but soft-headed and his uncowboy-like response is to be frustrated. This is a very interesting turn for Newman who was so taken with the character of Jim Kane that he purchased the film rights to the book.
Characteristically, the "showdown" of this film is not a gunfight between the rascals and the righteous but a comical encounter in a tacky Mexican motel room between the cowboys and their slippery employers. A television set, Martin's snap brim hat and Rogers' dignity are the only casualties. We know the Old West is dead because the spiteful gesture becomes the weapon of choice against banal con men that once might have been evil, land grabbing ranchers.
Watch for superb character actors Richard Farnsworth, Hector Elizondo and Gregory Sierra who provide good supporting performances in this film. The talented Terence Malick, who stumbled recently in his disappointing Thin Red Line, contributed to the script. Also take note of the carefully crafted portraits created by cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs. The final scene, replete with a final, inane conversation between Newman and Marvin at a tiny Mexican train station, is beautiful in the dusty timelessness of the Old West.
Not everything is explained in this movie including why Newman hates his nickname "Chihuahua Express" or the full story behind Newman's comically scary imprisonment. But, not everything is explained in life and therein lies a message.
Spend a quiet afternoon drinking in this visually interesting and very unusual buddy film whose seemingly disjointed vignettes imitate the goofiness of life rather than imitating textbook filmmaking. For those who watch and listen carefully, this film is full of smiles. Newman and Marvin as a Western Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn even seemed to have fun making this movie.