BRONCO BILLY -- Twelve area theaters.

"Ladies take to cowboys/Like kids take to clowns," goes the opening lyric to "Bronco Billy." "You're everyone's hero/For just a little while . . ." That low-key sentiment sets the stage for the new, improved Clint Eastwood -- relaxed, funny and refreshingly human. "Bronco Billy" is "Dirty Harry" with a sense of humor.

Eastwood's movie -- he directs as well as stars -- is as chockful of simplistic values, kneejerk machismo and other action staples as ever; they're just easier to take. So what if Billy and his pals end up sounding like refugees from a California encounter group? As good ol' boys go, you could do a lot worse.

Bronco Billy is a modern-day cowboy with a heart as big as a hoss-blanket and a weakness for pretty girls, old folks, nuns, orphans, arthritic horses, the criminally insane and assorted other underdogs. He and his ragtag "family" of down-and-outers travel around the country in Billy's Wild West Show.

The parody start out masterfully. The opening starts out masterfully. The opening scenes, detailing yet another opening night on the road, are among the funniest: a realistic look at a world without glamor, a world where lassos snag, snake dancers are bitten and the latest Lovely Assistant misses her cues. Billy, of course, is not in this line of work for the money but is saving up for "that ranch we want so city kids can see what the West is really like." You do have to question his managerial skills, however, since he apparently performs 99 per cent of his shows for free for starving orphans.

No doubt about it, the guy is engaging. "And a special howdy to all my little pardners out there," he tells the kids before each show. He's got a special spot in his heart for the little critters. Indeed, he stands mutely by while observing an attempted bank robbery, only to spring into action and save the day when one of the robbers trips a little boy and busts open the kid's piggy bank. It was the sight of all those little pennies rolling around on the floor . . . Here's a guy who believes his own spiel.

Enter the poor little rich girl, Sondra Locke, overplaying an overwritten part. Needless to say, it takes a real man like Bronco Billy to transform this frigid woman into a gutsy, warmhearted little gal by the end of the flick. t

What ruins the fun in the end is creeping California-ese. "Until you be who you want to be you're never gonna get very far." "Once you take the first step, it's easy. That sort of thing. The Hokey appeal wanes and the writing becomes self-parodying, to the point of boredom. But then there are the other lines, like "We'll just pull in our belts and pull up our boots -- we've been through worse times'n these."

Overall, "Bronco Billy" is more fun than a saloon full of six-shooters.