"Quigley Down Under" at least knows what it's up to. It sets out to provide broad, old-fashioned movie entertainment, and on its own modest terms it delivers. It's just that the terms really aren't that exciting.
A western set in the sprawling, raw outback of Australia, the picture is a kind of throwback. And for its star it features Hollywood's most out-of-time personality. In "Quigley Down Under," Tom Selleck plays the square-shouldered, Gary Cooper-style hero, Matthew Quigley, with a modern-day version of old-movie glamour. Nobody is better in these cornball roles than Selleck; in fact, nobody else does them. It's hard to say just how gifted an actor he is, but it's clear that he knows just what his strengths are, and "Quigley Down Under" plays right out of the center of them.
The character is shrewdly sculpted to Selleck's particular brand of decent, laid-back American masculinity. He's Magnum Cowboy. Wearing something darned close to an overdose of Ralph Lauren-style western gear, he plays Quigley as a combination of Wild Bill Hickok and Paul Bunyan, with a little Abraham Lincoln thrown in. Responding to a newspaper ad, the long-striding American comes to this rugged, uncivilized country around the time of the American Civil War to shoot dingoes for Elliott Marston (Alan Rickman), a powerful cattle baron. Or so he thinks. What he finds out after traveling halfway across the globe is that Marston wants to exploit his skill as a long-range marksman to help wipe out the Aborigine population as part of the country's campaign of "pacification by force."
Naturally, this foursquare loner demurs and gets a lickin' from his new boss for his trouble, sparking a war between the two. His companion through all this is a saucy but slightly deranged trollop named Crazy Cora (Laura San Giacomo), who came to Australia from Texas after she accidentally killed her own son during a Comanche raid. Cora is a tad confused, though; she thinks Quigley is her husband, Roy, and a great deal of comic mileage is gotten out of his drawling insistence that he isn't who she thinks he is. ("Lady, I told you, my name ain't Roy.")
The Australian director Simon Wincer, who last year won an Emmy for his work on Larry McMurtry's "Lonesome Dove," gives the film an unhurried pace that matches up well with his star's easygoing style. Also, he makes great use of the grand Australian landscapes -- captured beautifully by cinematographer David Eggby -- that give the picture a majestic backdrop. But Basil Poledouris's music leads us to believe that we're watching an extra-special episode of "The Big Valley," which is unfortunate since the picture is uncomfortably close to TV to begin with.
What's missing in "Quigley Down Under" is precisely what is missing in its star. Selleck is a skilled light comedian -- he's at his best delivering a wry put-down to a British officer -- and he handles John Hill's bantering dialogue deftly. But for all his burly authority, Selleck lacks dynamism on screen. There's no danger in him, nothing unresolved or mysterious. He's likable, but something of a lug.
The movie's a lug too. Rickman breaks off a few sharp line readings, but he's essentially miscast in the role of a western villain. San Giacomo seems even more out of place as Cora. With its arch, lightly ironic approach to the classic western style, the movie plays with the idea of anachronism, but San Giacomo can't put the necessary spin on her lines to make the character's incongruous modern sassiness work. Plus, next to Selleck, she looks a little mousy and underfed. But almost anyone would. During his big emotional scenes, Selleck blinks suggestively and, watching him, you can't help thinking that it's a little like watching Mount Rushmore blink. You can almost hear the granite crack.
Quigley Down Under, at area theaters, is rated PG-13.