By Owen Gleiberman
Updated June 10, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

Cowboys are roaming through the movies this summer (a few cowgirls, too), but most of them don’t seem quite at home on the range. Like heroes of some virtual-reality frontier, the rough riders of City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold and The Cowboy Way exist in a kind of time-warp limbo, caught between the Wild West of our dreams and the city-slick irony of our rudely contemporary lives. In one movie, we get urban schlemiels turned high-plains drifters; in the other, die-hard country boys tearing up the big, bad metropolis. Talk about your Western identity crisis — it’s enough to make the Marlboro Man give up smoking.

At the end of 1991’s City Slickers, Mitch Robbins (Billy Crystal) had completed his tenderfoot odyssey and found his smile. The audience found its smile too — City Slickers was the rare feel-good movie that provoked as many belly laughs as lumps in the throat. Still, Mitch’s triumph raises the trickiest dilemma for the makers of any sequel since Rocky Balboa last had to become an underdog: What, exactly, does Mitch have left to find?

City Slickers II offers what’s meant to be an irresistible answer: gold! Written by the original City Slickers team of Crystal, Lowell Ganz, and Babaloo Mandel, the new film opens with Mitch, now a contented New York suburbanite, facing his 40th birthday with barely a trace of his old midlife angst. He remains haunted, though, by visions of Curly (Jack Palance), the leathery cowpoke mentor he now fears he may have buried alive. Discovering a treasure map inside the lining of Curly’s hat, Mitch embarks on yet another happy-trails adventure, accompanied once again by the high-strung nerd Phil (Daniel Stern) and this time — replacing Bruno Kirby — by Mitch’s brother, Glen (Jon Lovitz), a sad-sack layabout whose sole accomplishment in life is his ability to recite The Godfather, Part II, notably the final monologue of his Corleone alter ego, Fredo.

City Slickers jumped off from a premise as niftily incongruous as the image of Charlie Chaplin in the frozen north. Crystal’s depressed nudnick didn’t really want to be on that cattle drive — the movie was a contest between his defensive urban wit and the corny bluster of the real cowboys — and so even when he began to live out his boyish fantasy of Old West heroism, the movie never lost its satirical bite. In City Slickers II, the bite is all but gone. Mitch is a tall-in-the-saddle hero right from the start, and though it’s nice to see Crystal looking confident and tan, the upshot of his newfound swagger is that Mitch has no real journey to make. City Slickers II is pleasant but vacuous — The Treasure of the Sierra Madre replayed as a lightweight yuppie caper.

Halfway through, Curly shows up — I mean, Curly’s identical twin brother, Duke (also played by Palance), a wily old career sailor who tries to lead our boys to the gold. Palance doesn’t do any push-ups here, but the gleam in his eye is as regally demented as ever, and his voice, with its echoes of John Huston’s imperious rasp, carries more weight than anything else in the movie; those malignantly whispered lines practically have fists at the end of them. Lovitz makes an amusing weasel, but his smarmy whine and pineapple-shaped head can’t compensate for a role that needed more zingers. In addition, someone should have told Crystal that, much as we like him, we don’t want to watch him dance a jig like Walter Huston. I vegetated amicably at City Slickers II, but there’s still a desperation behind the movie’s innocuousness. By the end, the filmmakers are reduced to spelling out the mystical “one thing” Mitch is supposed to learn, as if we wouldn’t get it without their help. There have been far shoddier sequels, but City Slickers II remains a good example of why more is sometimes less. C+