Redford's the vanquished in `Milagro Beanfield War'

Robert Redford is back on screen this season - not as an actor but as director and coproducer of ``The Milagro Beanfield War,'' an ambitious comedy-drama. Some observers have tagged ``The Milagro Beanfield War'' as a sweet little fable, while others call it a crashing bore. The only thing everyone agrees on is that serious production problems hit the movie while it was being made, including a lot of bad weather in New Mexico, where it was filmed.

Alas, it would take more than heavy rains to explain why this picture falls as flat as it does. ``The Milagro Beanfield War'' has a wistful kind of charm, but that's not enough to sustain interest for nearly two hours of all-too-cute Hollywood plot twists.

The story takes place in a little town called Milagro, and yes, there's a bean field there. There's also a giant corporation on the scene, with plans for bulldozing Milagro's beans and fields into oblivion and building a huge development - complete with an enormous golf course - in their place.

The trouble starts when a small-time farmer named Joe accidentally taps into the real estate tycoon's water line. Joe didn't mean to do it, but once he sees all that nice, clear water feeding his beans, he can't bring himself to undo the situation. Before you know it, everyone in sight is lining up for or against him. On his side is a businesswoman who writes for the local newspaper, and also a friendly lawyer who calls himself ``progressive'' because he defends people who can't pay his bill. On the opposing side are heavyweights like the big-time land developer and a well-dressed thug who follows his orders.

Many other folks in the town, including the sheriff, aren't quite sure whose side they're on - since they feel so-called ``progress'' is inevitable, even when their own land is at stake. Also present are a visiting sociology student from New York and an old New Mexico gunman with terrible aim.

Talented people are on hand to play this large army of characters. To mention just a few, there's John Heard as the lawyer, Sonia Braga as the businesswoman, Ruben Blades as the sheriff, and Daniel Stern as the NYU grad student. I also liked Melanie Griffith as the developer's wife, and Christopher Walken is in excellent form as the developer's hired goon.

All these performers aren't enough, though, to overcome the movie's lack of real excitement and originality. The story takes a few unexpected turns, but none of them are really surprising. The cinematography and editing are straight from the standard Hollywood rule book.

Despite its good intentions, ``The Milagro Beanfield War'' is one battle that should never have been fought.

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