A posse of ''freegrazers''--or rogue cowboys who drive their own cattle--run into trouble when they come across a prairie town run by a kingpin rancher. Sound familiar?
It should. You've seen Open Range done about a 100 times before, and in far better ways. In the beginning, we meet Range's cowboys--old curmudgeon Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall), stoic Charley Waite (Kevin Costner), jovial Mose (Abraham Benrubi) and Button (Diego Luna), the token ''kid''--but then a big, giant warning sign goes off when early on lines like, ''Let's rustle up some grub'' and ''They broke the mold after him '' are uttered with complete seriousness. The film never recovers after that. Twenty minutes in, nothing has happened--at all. Finally, the rough-hewn men roll into Harmonville, a typical Old West town, and encounter a nasty Irish rancher named Baxter (Michael Gambon), who, along with a corrupt sheriff (James Russo), rules the town with an iron hand. Baxter issues the appropriate threats to the freegrazers to move along or else--and then carries out said threats, killing Mose and severely injuring Button, even killing Charley's dog. Of course, revenge must be exacted but not before getting Button some medical attention, thus allowing Boss and Charley to meet the lovely but no-nonsense frontierswoman Sue Barlow (Annette Bening), who nurses Button back to health. Charley is immediately smitten because as Boss explains, ''A woman like that makes you want to put down roots, make little 'uns'' (no, really, he says that). Before it's all over, the town rises up against their oppressor, a shootout occurs, blood is spilled--and the guys in the white hats win. The moral? Don't kill a cowboy's dog.
Even with a strong desire to be in a Western, any actor in their right mind would have run far away from Open Range after reading the awful script. Yet, producer/director/star Kevin Costner was miraculously able to rustle up his own posse of Oscar-caliber actors, perhaps through good old-fashioned bribery. Costner doesn't do much with Charley but stand around and say little, while Duvall tries his best as old Boss--a man who, after losing a young wife and child, heads out into the open plains. Still, the veteran actor has the unenviable task have having to say some of the worst lines in cinematic history, including my personal favorite: ''If you want to stand there talkin' to the Man upstairs, I'll stand over here, hat in hand. But I ain't talkin' to that son of a bitch!'' Both Costner and Duvall really should know better, having starred in some other pretty good Westerns, including Dances With Wolves and the TV miniseries Lonesome Dove, respectively. Who knows what Bening was thinking? She plays Sue with requisite steely resolve, a spinster who has nearly given up on love, but obviously had no clue on how ridiculous she'd end up looking on screen. Same goes for Mexican actor Luna (Y Tu Mama Tambien), who, along with having a difficult time with the English language, has an even more difficult time pulling off the puppy-dog-like Button. What kind of name is that for a character in a Western, anyway?
Costner has said again and again he could make Westerns and baseball movies 'til the cows come home-apparently he's doing just that. When this multitasker got his hands on Lauran Pain's novel The Open Range Men to adapt into a big-screen production, he most likely felt he had found another dream project, similar to his Oscar-winning Wolves experience. Unfortunately, the end result only proves it's time for this cowboy to hang up his spurs. Along with screenwriter/producer Craig Storper, Costner has turned Open Range into one giant rehash of at least 10 other Western classics including High Noon, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and The Magnificent Seven without generating one original idea. The director does know how to capture the beauty of the open plains and shows audiences some truly spectacular vistas in Range. It's just that Costner is so desperately in love with the notion of the hard-bitten cowboy working and living off the land he forgets about telling a good story with compelling character relationships. Either that or he figures true fans of the Western simply won't care and will let the ambiance of the film wash over them. But, in a topsy-turvy career, Costner has once again made an error in judgment.
With all the best intentions on making an old-fashioned Western, Open Range just can't make it past its utterly pathetic dialogue and overdone plot. John Wayne is turning over in his grave.