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'Hi-Lo': So-So

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 15, 1999

  Movie Critic

The Hi-Lo Country
Billy Crudup, left, and Woody Harrelson are best buds in "The Hi-Lo Country." (Gramercy)

Stephen Frears
Woody Harrelson;
Billy Crudup;
Patricia Arquette;
John Diehl;
Sam Elliott;
Penelope Cruz;
Katy Jurado
Running Time:
1 hour, 55 minutes
Contains nudity, profanity and violence
"The Hi-Lo Country" is a buffed up, unapologetic paean to the rough-riding days in old cowboy country. Hi-Lo, N.M., just before and after World War II, to be precise. But like the rodeo rides we get to watch, it's just a matter of time before this movie gets thrown unceremoniously to the ground.

Out in this prairie town, the era of the cowboy is almost gone, but the cattle boys still want to have fun. And when Big Boy Matson (Woody Harrelson) agrees to pay $75 to Pete Calder (Billy Crudup) for his horse without petty bartering, the cowpokes become soul mates for life. Like the steel-jawed men around them, they herd cattle, ride rodeo, drink heartily and appreciate women. Only problem is, Pete and Big Boy find themselves appreciating the same woman.

Her name is Mona (Patricia Arquette) and she's more trouble than Jessica Rabbit. She's also married to Les Birk (John Diehl), an ugly foreman who works for Jim Ed Love (Sam Elliott), an emerging businessman who's trying to make a profit out of cattle, instead of a life.

Pete is torn between his allegiance to Big Boy and his irrepressible attraction to Mona. This struggle destroys his relationship (if that's what you call the stuff between men and women in this film) with sweet, pretty Josepha O'Neil (Penelope Cruz), who doesn't appreciate playing good girl to Mona's bad.

It should come as no surprise that director Sam ("The Wild Bunch") Peckinpah was once set to direct this adaptation of Max Evans's 1961 novel. After all, in this story, the times are changing, guns and fists are flying, Mexicans mingle with gringos, and the bad guys have all the cattle and women.

But Peckinpah's "Hi-Lo" never quite got in the saddle. And the movie landed in the unlikely, but respectful hands of director Stephen Frears, and producers Martin Scorsese (with whom Frears made "The Grifters") and Tim Bevan (with whom Frears did "My Beautiful Laundrette" and "Sammy & Rosie Get Laid").

To their credit, Frears and screenwriter Walon Green (who co-wrote "The Wild Bunch") stick to the story's old-fashioned guns with nary a postmodern twinkle. And they serve up entertaining showdowns like campfire beans for everyone.

It seems that these men – when they're not fixing barbed-wire fences or branding cattle – spend their time trying to find bars where they're sure to bump into their worst enemies. Everything's a tough-guy standoff, whether it's a poker game or (as horses become automobiles) a glaring match at the gas station. Mona, of course, raises that tension even higher.

As Big Boy Matson, Harrelson looks as if he's having the time of his life, whether he's gnawing sticks, tipping shots or spitting blood from his mouth before the next brawl. But the film sets you up – intentionally or not – for a big showdown between Matson and businessman John Ed Love. As the latter, Elliott, who puts an evil curlicue on the smiling cowboy act he lampooned in "The Big Lebowski," is always hovering at the edge of all those bar rumbles, as if waiting for the right time to show Matson the grim, unforgiving future. But this development gets mislaid among the story's other melodramatic twists and turns, which get sillier by the dozen.

Crudup, who played long-distance runner Steve Prefontaine in "Without Limits," is a commendable performer but his inner struggle never reaches the plaintive depths his narration calls for. And when he takes his problems to a brassy-voiced fortuneteller called Meesa (Katy Jurado), the movie becomes fair game for giggles and laughter. By then, the whole manly Zen thing has become caught in the proverbial zipper.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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