Costner rides again

Only a little of Kevin Costner's new western, "Open Range," takes place on the open range. Most of it unfolds in a small frontier town populated by the usual mix of small-time shopkeepers, hard-working wives, and - natch - a corrupt land baron and the sheriff he's bought off. As in a zillion other westerns, the land baron hates "free-grazers," the cowboys who feel it's their American right to herd their cattle wherever they please.

That's what our heroes happen to be: a crusty old wrangler, played by Robert Duvall in a near-perfect performance, and his trusty partner, played by Kevin Costner - who also directed the picture - at his laid-back best. They enter the town to rescue a sidekick who's been injured there. Before long, they're facing deadly enemies.

It's good to find Costner back in Wild West country, since that's where he made his directorial debut with the estimable "Dances With Wolves" in 1990. Since then, he's hit harder times with "Waterworld" and the pretentious "Postman."

Leaving behind the cultural boldness of "Dances With Wolves," he goes the traditional route in "Open Range," which is hard to pull off, since material that looks nostalgically classical to one viewer may look hopelessly hackneyed to another.

Costner films the open-range sequences with a generous eye for panoramic backdrops, recalling the epic masterpieces of John Ford. Town scenes are heavier on clichés, especially when romance blooms between Costner's character and the sister of a physician. In all, the film is a striking, if flawed, achievement by a talented actor who may become an important director if he sticks to the genre that suits him best.

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