Universal has a horse with a flat tire in “The Cowboy Way,” which isn’t funny enough to be a comedy or exciting enough to galvanize action fans. Toss in a plot shot full of holes, and this modern Western faces a rough box office ride beyond whatever initial business its stars can corral.
The premise would seem to suggest putting a country twang on the old “Crocodile Dundee” riff, but director Gregg Champion and writer Bill Wittliff (“Lonesome Dove”) never really capitalize on the comedic potential of having two New Mexico cowboys truckin’ into New York.
The mismatched duo, serious Sonny (Kiefer Sutherland) and fun-loving Pepper (Woody Harrelson), are onetime rodeo partners who, after a falling out, are thrown together trying to locate a friend who vanished while searching for his daughter (Cara Buono).
The girl, a Cuban immigrant, has been brought to New York by a smuggling outfit, whose evil ringleader (Dylan McDermott) is holding her hostage. Sonny and Pepper almost immediately know who the bad guy is but waste a lot of time running up bills at snooty hotels, befriending a Western-obsessed New York cop (Ernie Hudson) and, in Pepper’s case, crashing posh parties, though the filmmakers never draw a firm bead on any of those obvious targets.
Indeed, the most amusing and heavily marketed moment from the movie — where a naked Harrelson, after his tryst with a married cowgirl gets interrupted, holds a hat up with no hands — roughly serves as the apex of whatever humor the film can muster.
These cowboys also fail to put any more conventional skills to much use, considering the fish-out-of-water possibilities. The climactic sequence, for example, has the pair riding horses through Manhattan in an overlong chase that isn’t nearly as exhilarating as David Newman’s hard-charging score tries to make it seem.
Harrelson harvests a few laughs as the randier of the two cowboys, but there’s never much chemistry developed between his character and Sutherland’s listless, sober sidekick — or, for that matter, the pivotal role of their friend Nacho (Joaquin Martinez), whose disappearance sets the whole adventure into motion.
All of the characters, in fact, are sparsely developed, with McDermott steely as the villain, Stark, but not as menacing as the build-up requires.
Pic turns into virtually a non-stop chase during the last half-hour but nevertheless manages to feel flat, perhaps because Champion brings nothing fresh to the action. Those who bother to question such things will also find themselves muttering about Hudson’s cop, who blithely joins in the destruction; whether the U.S. has changed its policy on illegal immigration; or how the two cowboys suddenly become so adept at navigating their way around the big city. Some explanations may have been lost in the editing, but as is, it would take some fancy roping to pull “The Cowboy Way” together.
Tech credits fare a little better, capturing the swank New York locales in contrast to the West’s wide-open spaces.