Cate earns her spurs

Blanchett is versatile, but clichés mar 'The Missing.'

Cate Blanchett arrives in "The Missing" fresh from "Veronica Guerin" and just before "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," opening next month.

It's taken me a while to get over the regal image she projected in "Elizabeth" five years ago, but it's clear by now that she's a highly versatile actress who can play almost any kind of role.

Similar thoughts don't quite apply to Tommy Lee Jones, whose career has bogged down lately in small-time stuff like "The Hunted" and "Men in Black II."

I'm pleased to report Ms. Blanchett and Mr. Jones both give strong, imaginative performances in "The Missing," Hollywood's latest attempt to revive the western.

Blanchett plays a frontier physician whose young daughter is stolen by a native American shaman. Jones plays the doctor's estranged father, who helps her track down the girl.

Ken Kaufman's screenplay, based on a Thomas Eidson novel, loosely recalls "The Searchers," the 1956 classic with John Wayne as a psychologically troubled man trying to rescue a niece kidnapped by an Indian chief - a quest that transforms into a desire to kill the girl when he realizes that intimacy with the chief must have "soiled" her.

"The Missing" is less boldly creative than "The Searchers," which influenced everything from "Taxi Driver" to "Star Wars" in its wake. Still, the first two-thirds of Ron Howard's movie shows signs of similar ambition, using old western conventions to explore conflicting personalities and philosophies. Also noteworthy are Mr. Howard's efforts to reinvigorate the western format with horror-film touches.

The movie often works against its own best interests, though. While it centers on a smart and forceful woman, female characters make mistakes that jeopardize her mission.

While it shows native American shortcomings as results of white oppression, it asserts that malignant magic rages beneath the surface of Indian cultures. While it roots the heroine's compassion in her Christian beliefs, it suggests Indian occultism is equally powerful.

And the last third is a lackluster barrage of stalking, shooting, and fighting. Too bad the movie doesn't ride into its own sunset about an hour earlier.

Rated R; contains violence.

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