By EW Staff
December 30, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST
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Everything in this post?World War II American cowboy story is scaled big — the sweep of the dusty New Mexico landscape; the brute power of animals on the range; the rock-solid bond between two men; the intense pitch at which whiskey is knocked back, cards are slapped down, women are fought over. You can easily imagine Sam Peckinpah taking on this turf, as indeed he hankered to do for years after the publication of Max Evans’ 1961 novel. But the project couldn’t get off the ground until recently, and now here’s British dude Stephen Frears (”The Grifters”), casting an eye at the horizon and nearly whistling with awed appreciation for the Cowboy Code of Honor.

Everything is in place for a mythic drama — including a screenplay by Walon Green, who cowrote Peckinpah’s ”The Wild Bunch” — except the players, who don’t begin to fill the boots of the archetypes they’re meant to be. As Big Boy Matson, a rancher and returning Marine afraid of no man, including the husband of the hot-blooded woman he loves (Patricia Arquette, whose blood is positively tepid), Woody Harrelson furiously but unconvincingly works his jaw in a way meant to signify Unbreakable Spirit of the West; in fact, it signifies callow caricature. Billy Crudup, as Pete Calder, casts forlorn looks at Big Boy’s cutie-pie (he pines for her) as well as at Big Boy himself (he worships him), but, far from the mighty power he projects in ”Without Limits,” Crudup here settles for such a loving-puppy mope, that other, softer Prefontaine player, Jared Leto, might just as well have taken the role. With boyish sensibilities like these, Marlboro Country looks like a mighty bleak place.

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