- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 26, 2000

One and 1/2 out of four stars

TITLE: "All the Pretty Horses"

RATING: PG-13 (Occasional profanity, graphic violence and sexual candor)

CREDITS: Directed by Billy Bob Thornton.

RUNNING TIME: 116 minutes

Matt Damon is having his first bad year as a movie star. An uninspired object of reforming solicitude in "The Legend of Bagger Vance," he looks at once too old and too reserved for the role of an unwary, romantically susceptible young Texas wrangler in the movie version of "All the Pretty Horses," which has realization problems that extend well beyond Mr. Damon's miscasting.

At most, the cowpoke John Grady Cole, who embarks on a booby-trapped sojourn to Mexico with his pal Lacey Rawlins, should appear to be barely out of his teens.

Henry Thomas, cast as Lacey, perhaps can draw on residual memories of his Elliott in "E.T.," but he was 28 and Mr. Damon 29 when "Horses" was filmed on locations in Texas and New Mexico. There's not much reason for either of them to persist in playing men a decade younger.

The fact that Lucas Black, cast as an unwanted companion named Blevins, is still a teen-ager aggravates the credibility problems; it's easier to find him authentic and interesting.

Unfortunately, the plot is calculated to discard him because John Grady is the one who should remain the center of attention and empathy, especially after he plunges into a foolhardy love affair with the daughter of a wealthy Mexican rancher and then spends harrowing time behind bars with Lacey.

The ostensible time frame is the late 1940s. It's quite a wonder that the two get out alive, especially because the movie doesn't make a persuasive case for their resourcefulness or tenacity.

Matt Damon's movie appearances date back to 1988, when he had a role in "Mystic Pizza" at the age of 18. His recent ascent has been pretty impressive: "Courage Under Fire," in which he was a terrific secret weapon, in 1996; the sleeper "Good Will Hunting," which won him a share in an Oscar for screenwriting, in 1997; "Saving Private Ryan" and "Rounders" in 1998; "The Talented Mr. Ripley" this time last Christmas. The inevitable downturn seems to have hit him and the stock market simultaneously.

Cormac McCarthy's prestigious best seller might have been a foolhardy movie project. Screenwriter Ted Tally and director Billy Bob Thornton (who earlier cast Lucas Black as the juvenile lead in "Sling Blade") seem to linger in a reverential trance, which might be ascribed to excessive deference toward a literary source.

Evocative prose rather than adequate dramatization would appear to be Mr. McCarthy's strong point. The failure to reinforce "All the Pretty Horses" at banal, common-sense levels of presentation and motivation begins plaguing the odyssey of John Grady and Lacey at an early point.

By the time they need to make a getaway, so many hitches are stalling the gitalong that "All the Pretty Horses" might as well be hobbled and stabled. It can't make any headway, especially when dependent on suspense or plausibility.

Something demonstrably impulsive or lovelorn needs to vibrate in Mr. Damon to authenticate the improbably sudden infatuation with Penelope Cruz as seemingly out-of-his-league Alejandra. Because her father has hired gringos John Grady and Lacey in good faith, with no hint of prejudice or suspicion in his nature, risking a fling with the resident family treasure seems far more stupid than ingratiating or compelling.

Impassioned looks and torrid clinches might help, but the director and performers prove absurdly slack in that area of make-believe.

At any rate, the primal emotions and conflicts necessary for rationalizing a "forbidden" romance and a perilous situation remain somewhere beyond the picturesque far horizons of "All the Pretty Horses."

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