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Kevin Costner, star and director both, renews his commitment to the Western. And one of the foremost things to be said about it, or for it, is that it's a better and a braver movie in the year 2003 than it would have been in, say, 1953. What would have seemed common as dirt a half-century ago now appears flecked with gold dust. The narrative situation could scarcely be more simple and basic. "There's a fight coming" — between a powerful cattle baron and a pair of nomadic "free grazers" — and that's all there is to it. The simplicity in itself sees to it that this one manages to sidestep the pitfalls of the star's three previous Westerns: the self-consciously "epic" scale of Dances with Wolves and Wyatt Earp at three hours apiece, and, notwithstanding the less cumbersome running time, the anthological "comprehensiveness" of Silverado. By far the biggest chunk of the action — or nonaction, as you like — is taken up with the interminable waiting period in preparation for the big shootout. (Curiously the Costner character's surname is Waite.) Sort of a High Noon without a time limit. Yet you very soon realize that the movie is so safely and securely entrenched in its period and idiom ("Let's rustle up some grub," somebody actually says) that there will be no ruinous intrusions of technology, apart perhaps from a smidge of slow-motion in the action scenes: no Chinese martial-arts maneuvers to build a bridge to the younger generation, no computer-manipulated rotations of the Earth's axis, no science-fictional weaponry, no bullets followed in flight or freeze-framed an inch from their target. You can just sit back and relax. You had better. The poky pacing of the movie, the peculiar proportioning of its time, ought not to be underestimated as a contribution to the genre, even if this can be directly traced to the filmmaker's self-importance and pretension. In the end, the length of the wait for the big shootout is generously counterbalanced by the length of the shootout itself. With Robert Duvall, Annette Bening, Michael Gambon, Michael Jeter, James Russo, Diego Luna. (2003) — Duncan Shepherd

Rated R | 2 hours, 19 minutes


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