The gang that couldn’t ride straight is back on the commercial trail in “City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold.” The lively sequel to an original that grossed $ 123.8 million domestically is sure-shootin’ entertainment that shouldn’t have much trouble rounding up an audience for the high jinks on the range. The handsome contempo oater is rife with both gags and classic genre lore and the combination is USDA B.O. prime.
Getting once-bitten urbanite Mitch Robbins (Billy Crystal) back in the saddle takes a bit of sleight of hand by the scripters. He’s running a Manhattan radio station and knee deep in tsoris because of his big heart. His hire of buddy Phil (Daniel Stern) in sales is pretty much a wash and when his low-life brother Glen (Jon Lovitz) insists on moving in with the family, wife Barbara (Patricia Wettig) envisions divorce court.
It’s easy to see why he’s always searching for the nearest exit. But in every door frame, at every window is the image of trail boss Curly (Jack Palance). Mitch is obsessed by the notion that he just may have buried the grisled cowboy a tad prematurely.
So, when he stands in the mirror adjusting Curly’s Stetson, providence steps in. Tucked into the lining is a map indicating the way to buried gold. The lure of hidden treasure takes a big bite out of Phil and when a search of records at the New York Public Library jibes with details on the blotter, an expedition is set in motion. Conveniently, the trail begins just spitting distance from Las Vegas, where Mitch was headed for a trade show.
From the start it’s clear where “City Slickers II” is headed and one’s willing acceptance of being prodded along forgives much of its initial narrative clunkiness. Crystal’s appeal stems from an innate decency and that asset smooths over the sometimes schticky humor and the queasy encounters with Stern and Lovitz’s characters.
The film truly transforms and comes alive once it heads into sagebrush territory. It hits full stride with the introduction of Duke (Jack Palance), Curly’s twin brother. The long-separated sib had been dogging Mitch, so those haunting images were actually substantive.
The filmmakers nod appreciatively to “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and both movies share a fondness for parable and a keen sense of irony. But the “Slickers” sequel is less than obsessive in its lust for lucre. Friendship, family and the manly way are the bonds that comprise its more sober-sided nature. With the exception of some fuzzy attitudes about marriage, they are values tinged with the lachrymose.
At its heart the film is about Crystal’s desire to be a cowboy. The pursuit is somewhat vain though thankfully non-oppressive. He simply cannot hide his glee when charging full out on horseback. It’s masterfully captured in Adrian Biddle’s camerawork, and director Paul Wieland is equally shrewd in framing the iconographic Palance with low-angle shots and close-ups.
Crystal’s character grounds the yarn in the real and humorous. He’s at the service of the material (which he co-wrote with Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel) and generous to a fault with other performers. That proves a tad indulgent in regard to his “Slicker” pardners who, by dint of their screen characters, are meant to be obnoxious.
But it’s just fine in response to Palance, who won an Oscar for the 1991 original and can’t help but catapult the movie into the mythic. His presence and consummate performing skill elevate and electrify the proceedings. There is truly a touch of magic in his work.
Also worth a note is an uncredited turn by Bob Balaban as a radio shrink with a perfect deadpan delivery and attentiveness.
“City Slickers II” is a welcome sequel, much in the spirit of the original but keen to mosey into new terrain. It’s definitely the yee-hah! film of the season.