It's taken a long time for anyone to dare to use golf as the focus of a major Hollywood movie, but Ron Shelton has managed to make the sight of grown men hitting a little ball around kind of fun in "Tin Cup." This mangy tale of a ne'er-do-well's fitful assault on personal and professional respectability benefits greatly from Kevin Costner's ingratiatingly comic star turn, his most appealing work in years.

It’s taken a long time for anyone to dare to use golf as the focus of a major Hollywood movie, but Ron Shelton has managed to make the sight of grown men hitting a little ball around kind of fun in “Tin Cup.” Amiable and constantly amusing rather than uproarious, this mangy tale of a ne’er-do-well’s fitful assault on personal and professional respectability benefits greatly from Kevin Costner’s ingratiatingly comic star turn, his most appealing work in years. Rife with appeal to mainstream audiences, this looks like a nice long drive right down the middle of the fairway for Warner Bros.

Having already scored onscreen with baseball and basketball, Shelton here takes as his unlikely protagonist a down-and-out operator of a rural Texas driving range, a once-upon-a-time contender who becomes inspired to compete in the U.S. Open. Although the story trajectory follows along the familiar lines of a “Rocky”-esque underdog who suddenly finds himself within reach of the brass ring, this is by no means a conventional inspirational film, being both sweet and unruly.

Only hermits could be more marginal than Roy McAvoy (Costner) and his buddies. With more armadillos than customers at his dilapidated desert range outside of Salome, Texas, McAvoy swigs beers with the boys and hits a bucket or two when he feels like it. But life is passing him by when Dr. Molly Griswold (Rene Russo) turns up for a lesson. What this foxy lady is doing in these godforsaken parts is never really explained, but the small-town shrink gives Roy the first reason he’s had in many moons to clean up his act.

When Roy’s old college partner, David Simms (a credible Don Johnson), now a top pro, comes around to ask him to caddy for him in a celebrity tourney, Roy accepts the humiliating job but uses the occasion to show up his smarmy old friend and amusingly make a name for himself on television. When he learns that Molly, with whom he has quickly fallen in love, happens to be David’s girlfriend , Roy uses this as added inspiration to make it to the U.S. Open, where nearly the final hour of the film takes place.

Throughout, the interest of screenwriters John Norville and Shelton remains squarely upon the character of the off-kilter Roy “Tin Cup” McAvoy, whose main problem in life, it seems, has been his inclination to “go for it” when sometimes a little prudence and good sense might have served him better. Though this quality has proved a detriment in his life, it begins to pique the interest of Molly, even if the guy does live in a trailer and owes a load of money to his stripper former g.f. (Linda Hart).

McAvoy’s obstinacy perhaps expresses itself most completely, and humorously, in his relationship with his prickly friend and sometime caddy Romeo (Cheech Marin), with whom he always argues about clubs and life. Marin’s freewheeling manner proves a fine match for Costner’s more subtle, low-key style. The star here seems more stimulated by and responsive to his material than he has since at least “A Perfect World,” if not Shelton’s “Bull Durham.” Playing an easy-to-identify-with Everyman with all too much unrealized potential, Costner gives a movie star performance in the best sense, aware of what he’s good at and ready to give it in smartly judged doses.

The teasing and flirting between Costner and Russo is appealing enough, but since the pairing forces the issue of a comparison to “Bull Durham,” it can only be said that Russo suffers by contrast to Susan Sarandon in the earlier film. The quirks of her neurotic psychologist quickly grow a bit wearisome and repetitive, and the pulse doesn’t appreciably quicken at the thought of them finally getting together. What’s more, Russo has been coiffed, made up and shot rather unflatteringly.

Impressively, Shelton has made the climactic golf tournament a breezily entertaining and nicely paced affair, even for the non-aficionado. Match manages to engage and tie together the main character and emotional issues raised earlier, and wrap-up satisfies without succumbing to standard Hollywood triumphalism.

Pic runs a bit long for what it is, and appears rather untidy directorally, with mismatched shots and less than totally coherent coverage at times. But the character and humor, along with the fresh milieu, come through just fine, which counts for much more than stylistic niceties in this case. All the same, Russell Boyd’s brightly colorful widescreen lensing is a big plus, and William Ross’ score, supplemented by plenty of rock, Tex-Mex and country tunes, also provides a strong lift.

Tin Cup

Production

A Warner Bros. release, presented in association with Regency Enterprises, of a Gary Foster production. Produced by Foster, Ron Shelton. Executive producer, Arnon Milchan. Directed by Ron Shelton. Screenplay, John Norville, Shelton.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, Panavision widescreen), Russell Boyd; editors, Paul Seydor, Kimberly Ray; music, William Ross; production design, James Bissell; art direction, Gae Buckley, Chris Burian-Mohr; set decoration, Ric McElvin; costume design, Carol Oditz; sound (Dolby/SDDS), Kirk Francis; associate producers, Karin Freud, Kellie Davis; assistant director, H. Gordon Boos; second-unit director/camera, Mark Vargo; casting, Victoria Thomas, Ed Johnston. Reviewed at Writers Guild of America Theater, Beverly Hills, July 29, 1996. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 133 MIN.

With

Roy McAvoy - Kevin Costner
Dr. Molly Griswold - Rene Russo
Romeo Posar - Cheech Marin
Doreen - Linda Hart
David Simms - Don Johnson
Earl - Dennis Burkley
Dewey - Rex Linn
Clint - Lou Myers
Curt - Richard Lineback
Turk - Mickey Jones
Boone - Michael Milhoan
Jose - George Perez
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