Back In the Saddle

Can KEVIN COSTNER, with a string of bad films in his wake, make a good one? An epic western, no less? Yup.

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I don't feel like a relic," Kevin Costner says over breakfast in a Manhattan hotel room. He doesn't look like one either. Fit and genial at 48, he moves or sits with the easy poise of all those athletes he's played: the hungry golfer in Tin Cup, the cyclist in American Flyers, the baseball veterans in Bull Durham (recently chosen by SPORTS ILLUSTRATED as the best-ever baseball movie) and For Love of the Game. His talk has a coiled energy as well. Sentences, packed with imagery and analogies, accrue momentum until he's created an aria, an oration on the fly. He has the assurance of someone who is used to being listened to, who's had more than a cup of coffee in the big leagues. For maybe a decade, Costner was the Greg Maddux of Hollywood stars, quietly outpitching the competition.

These days, though, it's almost as if the star is back in the minors. Costner's last film with robust earnings, 1995's Waterworld, was a chaotic venture ("Kevin's Gate," critics called it) and the most expensive movie ever made at the time. His last big western, The Postman, in 1997, was seen as a risible catastrophe by most critics (and by a few, like this one, as an ornery and stirring achievement). His last six films together earned less at the domestic box office than the Oscar-winning 1990 Dances with Wolves did on its own. He can't fall back on a franchise series (no sequels on his resume), and he isn't the type for a big knockabout comedy. Costner is at that poignant crux in a star's career when it's time to think about taking supporting roles, doing a TV cop show, trying Broadway, running for Governor.

But, dammit, no. "I still like the idea of movies," Costner says. So what does it feel like, not being Harry Hot anymore? "Well, your ego is hurt," he says, "and if you don't acknowledge that, you don't live in the real world. But I feel successful." And what does it mean that his films now gross pocket change? "It means that it's hard for a movie like Open Range to get made."

Open Range is that most unfashionable creature, a western--the story of two cowboys, Charley (Costner) and Boss (Robert Duvall) in 1882, caring for their herd and each other, wandering into town and into trouble. It is peopled with the usual suspects: the corrupt sheriff (James Russo), the mean rich guy (Michael Gambon), the warm, weathered spinster (Annette Bening). The plot is basically a real-estate wrangle: whether Boss and Charley have the right to graze their herd on land claimed by the rich guy. And there's a lovely interlude with Charley and the spinster, where the cowboy has to recall gentlemanly codes of conduct (picking up clods of earth that his boots have left on her foyer carpet) and learn again how to make his heart soft for her while keeping it hard for the inevitable shootout in town.

But what makes Open Range such a mature and satisfying treat is the interplay of Boss and Charley, two terse, honorable men in the saddle. It's a real and rare pleasure to see Costner and Duvall together--these masters of intense passivity, who know how to be watched when they're listening. They can do tough talk (Duvall to three interlopers: "One twitch, and you're in hell") or laconic wit (Costner as he spots a few other folks: "Country's fillin' up"). They make a terrific pair of knights errant, or maybe bachelor dinosaurs, enjoying themselves on the Western plain right before the asteroid hits.

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