Rated PG-13, 105 min. Directed by Steve Miner. Starring Jon Abrahams, Oded Fehr, Tom Skerritt, Leonor Varela, Rachael Leigh Cook, Randy Travis, Robert Patrick, Usher Raymond, Ashton Kutcher, Alfred Molina, Dylan Mcdermott, James Van Der Beek.
Call it Dude, Where's My Horse?. This photogenic Western is more ambitious than the usual strenuously middling genre fare from Dimension Films, Miramax's youth-oriented production arm, but it's not likely to set off a stampede of frontier flicks, as its creators seem to have hoped. Director Miner (a TV vet noted for the occasional celluloid bomb, like Lake Placid) indulges in all the tricks of the trade -- panoramic beauty shots of “southern Texas” (actually Alberta, Canada), double-exposures of dusty trail rides and weathered maps, and a cast of thousands, as befits the epic storyline -- but there's not much spunk here. Drawn from Taming the Nueces Strip: The Story of McNelly's Rangers, the true-life recollections of Ranger George Durham, the material is appealing, but its execution is lightweight and broad. The protagonist here is Lincoln Rogers Dunnison (Van Der Beek, Dawson of the WB's Creek), a derby-hatted, mutton-chopped Philadelphia dandy seeking revenge for the murder of his family by the gunslingers of nefarious cattle rustler Fisher (Molina, in mustache-twirling villain mode). Dunnison meets Durham (Kutcher, the goofy Kelso of Fox's That 70s Show) on the road to Brownsville, where the two hope to enlist with Captain Leander M. McNelly (McDermott), the tough-as-nails leader of the ragtag (but officially sanctioned) Rangers. Band-of-brothers characterization reveals the rest of the company: a cocky sharpshooter relegated to scout duty because of his race (hip-hop popster Usher, who seems to have time-warped in from the Teen Choice Awards), a callow new recruit (Abrahams), McNelly's right-hand man (Travis), and a softhearted cowpoke (Patrick). The gang chases Fisher to Mexico, stopping off to rescue a shady señorita (Varela, who couldn't be more smokin' if she were poured into a copper cylinder and superheated) and visit the legendary King Ranch (here, the Dukes Ranch, overseen by a woefully underused Skerritt). The workmanlike script hits the historical high points and the moral grey areas (McNelly, in particular, cottons to frontier justice rather than book law), but it lingers too long on a perfunctory romance between Durham and a genteel rancher's daughter (Cook). Meanwhile, erstwhile model Kutcher shows off his Ranger togs for his horse, cavorts in threadbare long johns, and winds up in the bathtub with Van Der Beek. These fluffy scenes make Young Guns look like The Wild Bunch (from which, incidentally, Rangers somehow cribs its ending). Nonetheless, it'd be downright un-Texan to fail to mention the bright spots, such as savvy casting choices that match the greenhorn thespians with grizzled genre vets. Skerritt doesn't have to do much more than walk into the frame to make an impression (which is fortunate, since that's all he does), and Patrick has a sad-eyed, world-weary tenderness that feels right (along with a sizable press-on mole, which doesn't). Much care has been taken with the action sequences, which are exciting and handsomely filmed, if perhaps too violent for young audiences. Yet the real saga is the movie's twisted history; it warmed the vault for two years before sneaking into theatres.
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