While it’s unlikely to cement a new era for the Western, “Lightning Jack” is a good-natured, if laconic, oater that rides along nicely on the screen persona of writer/actor Paul Hogan. But without the inspired zaniness of earlier Hogan efforts, don’t expect “Jack” to “Croc”’em at the box office. This is a commercial mosey on the range that plays well as a programmer and should go on to decent ancillary and foreign returns.
It would be a stretch to merely pass the effort off as “Crocodile Dundee” goes west and back in time. Hogan’s Lightning Jack Kane is not as much of a fish out of water here. There are tinges of national pride, but Jack is passing through town only to elude the law and not to board a steamer headed Down Under.
The fictional outlaw is a minor member of the notorious Younger Brother gang lucky enough to dodge a hail of bullets and escape while his cohorts ride into the history books. He might have disappeared too, save for a newspaper article that dismissed his importance to the criminal consortium. So, he sets out to rob a bank and winds up grabbing a paltry sum and a mute named Ben (Cuba Gooding Jr.) as a hostage.
When it comes time to release his charge, however, Ben makes it clear he’d rather adopt outlaw ways. Jack initially resists but soon finds Ben’s camaraderie and usefulness hard to discard.
Hogan’s script rides into familiar terrain and pokes fun at convention without establishing a crisp, new spin. There’s a foray into the politics of the new frontier, treacherous passage through Indian territory and the requisite whorehouse stop to meet up with long-suffering, good-natured g.f. Lana (Beverly D’Angelo).
Hogan relies on personality rather than narrative. That approach provides him the opportunity to feign cowardice and put the pin in macho posturing when it’s revealed vain Jack ought to be wearing spectacles to see his way through trouble. The role fits Hogan like a glove.
The supporting cast isn’t provided much to hang a hat upon. D’Angelo, Pat Hingle’s blustery lawman and L.Q. Jones’ bad-man-turned-peace-officer are to type, albeit given dignity by the performers. Gooding is less fortunate in a sidekick role too reliant on bug-eyed response and lap-dog obedience.
Director Simon Wincer is right at home in the saddle after such forays as “Phar Lap” and “Lonesome Dove.””Lightning Jack” has an easy lope and an uncluttered visual style that works well with the material.
This throwback to the likes of “Cat Ballou” comes up a tad short on hilarity and action. Still, its good- natured joshing carries the audience along for an enjoyable, scenic ride.