By Owen Gleiberman
Updated May 06, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

Watching the big, earnestly self-important Westerns that get made these days (Unforgiven, Geronimo), you’d never guess that at the height of its popularity the Western was one of the most relaxed and genial of all movie genres. It was the kind of fanciful pop entertainment people attended the way that kids read comic books. Today’s Westerns, however, are serious stuff, an occasion for ”dark” moral hand-wringing and meticulously barren cinematography. With rare exceptions (the slapdash Tombstone), they’ve become as ponderous as Ingmar Bergman pictures.

<p.I went into Bad Girls expecting it to be a campy exercise in pop revisionism, a tale of rootin’-tootin’ Annie Oakleys tearing up the range with six-guns blazing. My secret hope was that the film would be so bad it was fun. Well, I got it wrong: The movie isn’t that bad-and it’s no fun at all. Instead of playing the girls-in-spurs premise for the cheeky hokum it is, Bad Girls looks at its cowgirl heroines with solemn reverence. They’re victims, soulful sisters trying to make their way in a man’s dirty world.

In 19th-century Colorado, four prostitutes end up on the run after their ringleader, Cody (Madeleine Stowe), kills an abusive customer. Pursued by a couple of Pinkerton detectives, they ride out of town and try to come up with plans for a new life. In addition to Cody, who surveys the world with a gaze of angry pride, the group includes Eileen (Andie MacDowell), a Southern belle who likes to chatter on about how she’s from New Orleans (even though she’s not); prim Anita (Mary Stuart Masterson), who’s still in mourning over the loss of her young husband; and Lilly (Drew Barrymore), a fearless tart in luxurious platinum-blond curls. Give or take a detail, I’ve just said everything there is to say about the characters in Bad Girls. They’re paper- thin concoctions that barely give the actresses a chance to parade their own personalities, let alone invent new ones.

Directed by Jonathan Kaplan in a craftsmanly-if pointless-approximation of Sam Peckinpah’s moody-poetic style, Bad Girls is too intent on putting a halo of respectability around its heroines to find much life in them. The setup is a steal from Unforgiven: a group of Old West hookers stigmatized for striking back against male aggression. Yet for all the feminist outrage that’s been built into the premise, Bad Girls never becomes a righteous payback fantasy, a Thelma & Louise on horseback. Its point of view remains dismayingly chivalrous. On the road, Cody and company encounter a variety of men, some sinister, some noble. The villain is Cody’s old boyfriend, Kid Jarrett (James Russo), a leering bandit who leads a scruffy gang. But then there’s Josh McCoy (Dermot Mulroney), a handsome gunslinger, all lean, polite, Gary Cooperish valor. As the film meanders from one capture and escape to the next, you begin to realize that the women, for all their assumed independence, remain almost entirely at the mercy of men. Except for a couple of scenes, it’s the guys who get to do all the fun stuff (i.e., blow people away).

As Cody, Madeleine Stowe holds the screen with her burnished fury. And Drew Barrymore remains an amusing flirt. The other two actresses don’t seem to be doing much besides modeling their lovely flowered dresses and bonnets. The truth is that there were zestier women characters in the Westerns of 40 and 50 years ago-Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again, Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge in Johnny Guitar. And didn’t it occur to anyone that a movie called Bad Girls could have used a good, raunchy female villain? Trying to turn a gimmick movie into an art Western, Kaplan ends up making his heroines so mournful and passive that he renders them damsels in distress, mere bystanders in the cowboy wars.