Kenny Rogers doesn't exactly sit tall in the saddle, but he looms large. High, wide and handsome? One out of three ain't bad. Matinee idol or not, Rogers' folksy CBS movies are invariably crowd pleasers, and tonight's, "Wild Horses," at 9 on Channel 9, promises to uphold the tradition. It doesn't have everything, but it has more than you might expect.
Rogers amiably plays former rodeo champ Matt Cooper, now settled down with one wife and three kids and a factory job (at the plant, they wear orange overalls, almost like Rajneeshees) and middle-aged doubts about the meaning of it all. He dreams of open spaces, and when the opportunity presents itself to hie off to Wyoming for a mustang roundup -- he gets fired is how it presents itself -- Matt and a pal leave Texas for higher ground.
In Wyoming, they find plenty of horses, magnificently photogenic scenery, a devious plot to divert horseflesh into horsecash, and Pam Dawber as plucky Ms. New-Woman, with whom Matt almost has an affair. Other attractions include two eminently venerable character actors as a pair of cowpoke cronies: Ben Johnson and Richard Farnsworth, who appear to have cornered the crag market between them. Johnson, in particular, exudes an effortless authority.
Perhaps most ingratiating of all is David Andrews as Rogers' young friend Dean Ellis, an adult kid who loves to impress the ladies with stories of how he got that cast on his arm. If there's no one around to listen, he tells tall tales to himself. For his part in dressing up this easygoing adventure, Andrews' name can permanently be etched in the charming sidekick hall of fame.
Most of the cowboys are right honorable folk, given to a barroom brawl perhaps, but "damn straight," as Rogers says in another context. But into their midst comes Richard Masur to sour the dream of the wild horses. He's sent, he says, by "Washington," which is approximately the equivalent of a horror movie character saying he just flew in from Transylvania. The script, by Roderick Taylor and Daniel Vining, delays a mite long the hero's discovery of the dastardly scheme, but director Dick Lowry can sustain interest just by cutting to the horses, who are exhilaratingly beautiful as they bisect the vistas.
The film is determinedly old-fashioned and pleasingly so. Life on the range is made to seem as brisk and free as it was when John Wayne was clomping around it. Rogers sings the title song under the opening and closing credits and joins in a sing-along around a campfire -- yes, a campfire -- after some of the other hombres finish a chorus of "Ghost Riders in the Sky."
While the old cliche's remain attractive, those of more recent vintage tend to grate. During one of their therapeutic chats, Dawber asks Rogers accusingly, "When was the last time you made a commitment?" When all is said and done and rounded up, Rogers says he's made that there "commitment" and adds, "I've learned a lot about myself . . . and my priorities." Ugh.
As icky as the pop shrinkthink is, the rest of the film rests easy on the eye and the ear and the disposition. Releasing a wild black stallion from captivity and sending him back to his herd, Rogers actually says, "This is where he belongs." It's one of the oldest lines in the book, but darned if the filmmakers don't prove that the old book is still worth opening now and again.