Cowboys are roaming through the movies this summer (a few cowgirls, too), but most of them don’t seem quite at home on the range. Like heroes of some virtual-reality frontier, the rough riders of City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold and The Cowboy Way exist in a kind of time-warp limbo, caught between the Wild West of our dreams and the city-slick irony of our rudely contemporary lives. In one movie, we get urban schlemiels turned high-plains drifters; in the other, die-hard country boys tearing up the big, bad metropolis. Talk about your Western identity crisis — it’s enough to make the Marlboro Man give up smoking.
Though The Cowboy Way isn’t the sequel to anything, it may as well have been. A routine buddy thriller in Stetsons, the movie jams half a dozen formulas into the compactor — it’s 48 Hrs. meets “Crocodile” Dundee meets Midnight Cowboy meets the credit sequence of TV’s McCloud. Our heroes are a couple of New Mexico roping champions: Pepper Lewis (Woody Harrelson), a wild-eyed, tequila-swilling good ol’ boy with an accent as thick as his bod is lean, and Sonny Gilstrap (Kiefer Sutherland), his longtime partner, who has never forgiven Pepper for pulling a no-show at the National Rodeo Finals. What can make these guys become friends again? How about hopping into a pickup and driving to Manhattan to find their old pal Nacho (Joaquin Martinez), a Cuban rancher who disappeared after arriving in the city to welcome his immigrant daughter.
The setup is just an excuse to get these cowboys to the Big Apple, which is played as a cartoon of chic unfriendliness. Harrelson’s Pepper is a cartoon as well, a stud-muffin hayseed so unsophisticated that he checks into the Waldorf and gargles wine at the dinner table. There’s more: the inevitable encounter with a turbaned taxi driver, a “decadent” fashion-designer party at which Pepper dances with hunky abandon and gets offered a job as an underwear model. Most of these routines were old the first time, but Harrelson, with his goofy Muppet face, gives a sweet, sexy performance. (That’s more than you can say for Sutherland, who does his best impression of a Southern-fried lox.) After much tired hugger-mugger, the movie arrives at an excitingly staged sequence in which Pepper and Sonny gallop through midtown Manhattan on horseback and use their lassos on the bad guy. For a moment or two, The Cowboy Way makes being an urban cowboy look thrilling; the rest of the time, it’s strictly tame oats. C