The Cowboy Way (1994) review-saddle up for some mediocrity

Despite what you might have heard, fish-out-of-water comedies are not easy to put together, especially when elements like class are involved.

Push too hard in one direction and you’re an elitist prick making fun of poor people. Go too far in the other direction and you come across as an uncultured swine whose worldview is severely limited.

But throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Hollywood directors managed to take that potentially volatile formula and wring some genuine hits out of it, like Crocodile Dundee (1986) and City Slickers (1991).

While the plot of these movies vary, a lot of the same elements are always at play, where the filmmakers try to find some common ground between urban and rural communities, all the while playing the differences up for laughs.

Even though Gregg Champion’s The Cowboy Way (1994) checks a lot of those same boxes, it just didn’t resonate with audiences the same way, garnering poor box office returns and an even less impressive critical reception (currently holding a 21% on Rotten Tomatoes).

And after viewing it for the first time almost three decades later, it’s easy to see why this action-comedy isn’t fondly remembered by movie-goers, since the script never rises above the emotional maturity of a Saturday-morning cartoon.

Kiefer Sutherland and Woody Harrelson star as the eponymous cowboys; two life-long friends and rodeo stars who travel from New Mexico to New York City to rescue their missing friend and his daughter.

Once the pair arrive in the Big Apple, they discover that their friend has gotten mixed up with some human traffickers who aren’t squeamish about tying up loose ends.

And just like the movie’s title suggests, Sutherland and Harrelson must use their rugged nature to save the day, even though they spend way more time fighting with each other than the bad guys.

That exhausting back-and-forth dynamic is part of why The Cowboy Way doesn’t work for me, since I didn’t really buy the central relationship between the two leads.

With very few exceptions, they spend the entire runtime of the movie at each other’s throats, arguing over everything from past misdeeds to how they should navigate the strange concrete jungle of New York.

Not only did this constant bickering get annoying after a while, but it seriously made me question why these two men have been friends their entire lives if they can’t stand one another.

I get that character-based conflict is the lifeblood of any good “buddy cop” movie, but in this case the filmmakers pushed it way too far and didn’t provide any real levity between the two until the very end of the movie.

Plus, establishing this level of hostility between Harrelson and Sutherland seems like a lazy way to manufacture conflict, especially since the duo are going up against a literal human trafficking ring.  

The script also fails when it comes to delivering on the fish-out-of-water comedy, since a lot of the jokes are entirely surface-level.

Admittedly, this “east meets west” premise had a lot of potential, since the push and pull of modernity and traditionalism is a classic American story that has already served as the foundation for a lot of memorable westerns.

But the best material that the writers of The Cowboy Way could come up with out of this set-up is on the same level as a struggling stand-up comic.

In other words, a lot of this film’s humour stems from simple cultural misunderstandings or Sutherland and Harrelson gawking at a bunch of New York City weirdos.

It’s not like this brand of comedy is automatically dead on arrival, but the parade of snooty waiters, quirky shopkeepers and high-fashion models on display all seem like cardboard cutouts.

The one exception to this trend is Ernie Hudson, who plays a NYPD Mounted Unit officer who helps the titular cowboys get a lay of the land.

Outside of acting like a real person for a change, Hudson’s horseback lawman also serves as a nice bridge between the urban-rural divide that dominates the movie on a thematic level.

Unfortunately, the filmmakers don’t seem interested in meaningfully exploring that idea beyond this one side character, opting instead for inane side-plots like when Harrelson accidently becomes the new face of Calvin Klein.

A lot of this could be forgiven if maybe the villains were at least interesting, but The Cowboy Way comes up short in that respect as well.

Dylan McDermott’s main bad guy is suitably menacing but lacks any sort of depth, while a talented actor like Luis Guzmán gets even less to do as a generic henchman.

These characters also represent the movie’s larger problem with tone, since the severity of their respective fates don’t line up with the filmmakers’ intentions.

For example, Guzmán’s character is subjected to genital mutilation in the later half of the movie when the “good guys” need to extract information from him using a baby cow.

While the acting and cinematography in this scene suggest a comedic tone, it’s hard to detach yourself from the unmistakably grizzly nature of what’s happening on screen.

Meanwhile, McDermott’s demise (SPOILERS) at the end of the film is gut-bustingly hilarious, even though I’m sure that’s not what the director was going for.

Here’s a free tip for any would-be directors out there: if you’re going to replace one of your actors with a dummy for a “serious” death scene, make sure you don’t linger on that shot for almost 10 whole seconds.

Despite all these glaring flaws, Harrelson and Sutherland still manage to keep the movie afloat through their sheer charisma alone.

The pair have natural chemistry despite being saddled with a poor script, and do come across as being believable modern cowboys instead of Hollywood actors playing dress-up.

It’s also refreshing to see Sutherland play a character who is way more calm and level-headed, although my praise may be a byproduct of me watching all nine seasons of 24.

But outside of these two appealing leads, The Cowboy Way never really capitalizes on its premise, with the fish-out-water element serving as window dressing and nothing more.

By the time the credits roll, all you really learn about being a cowboy is that you need to shoot first and ask questions later, which is how most 90s action heroes operate anyway.

If you’re looking for a more cerebral take on what it means to be a cowboy in the present day, you’d have better luck reading the novels of Cormac McCarthy or even watching modern professional wrestling.



Corner store companion:

Pull N’ Peel Twizzlers (because you can use it to fashion your own lasso … partner)

Fun facts:

-Release date: June 3, 1994

-Budget: $35 million (estimated)

-Box office: $20,280,016

-After finishing his work on The Cowboy Way, director Gregg Champion worked in television for the rest of his career, helming episodes for series like The Magnificent Seven (1998-2000) and made-for-TV movies like The Last Brickmaker in America (2001).

Surprise cameo: Allison Janney briefly pops up midway through the film as a nameless NYPD computer operator who helps the main characters locate their missing friend.

Musical highlight: “Good Guys Don’t Always Wear White” by Jon Bon Jovi (plays over the end credits)

Bird on a Wire (1990) review-the perfect Mel Gibson movie

Mel Gibson is definitely one of those public figures who is going to have an * permanently affixed to his career from now until the end of time.

While I don’t have time to go into the actor’s relationship with alcohol abuse, religious fanaticism and outright bigotry, suffice it to say that these transgressions have dogged his otherwise pretty impressive career in the movie business.

Hell, even with all these controversies in mind, I still teared up watching Hacksaw Ridge back in 2016, which is a testament to Gibson’s talent behind the camera (in addition to his acting chops in front of it).

While Bird on a Wire (1990) isn’t as fondly remember as some of Gibson’s other projects (Braveheart, Lethal Weapon, Mad Max), it’s still a great showcase for the actor’s natural charisma, so much so that it will make you briefly forget that he once called a female cop “sugar tits.”

The plot of Bird on a Wire revolves around Rick Jarmin (Gibson), an FBI informant who is trying to adjust to life in the witness protection program after testifying against some corrupt DEA agents (Bill Duke and David Carradine).

But when those criminals finally track Rick down, they immediately swear revenge and seek to put him in the ground.

This situation is made even more complicated when Rick randomly runs into his ex-fiancé Marianne (Goldie Hawn), who previously thought that her old flame had died in a plane crash.

From there, Bird on a Wire turns into a chase movie, where Gibson and Hawn must race across the north-eastern United States to meet up with an old FBI handler who can provide the pair with some protection.

And in that respect, the film mostly succeeds, due in large part to the natural chemistry between the two leads.

Gibson and Hawn really sell you on the idea that they are old lovers reuniting under extreme circumstances, without getting bogged down in the endless bickering that can sink other on-screen relationships.

This core dynamic between the pair is also blended seamlessly into the film’s many action sequences, where each daredevil stunt is punctuated by a zingy one-liner or well-timed physical gag.

In fact, Bird on a Wire is chock full of laugh-out-loud jokes even when the pace slows down, which is a testament to how well Gibson and Hawn play off of each other.

The film also gives Gibson some room to show off his range as an actor, since the plot requires him to adopt a variety of characters as he backtracks through his previous identities in the witness protection program.

Admittedly, the part of the movie where Gibson has to briefly slip back into his life as a gay hairdresser is a little cringey (even attracting the ire of GLAAD), but he still commits to the bit and makes it convincing.

However, some of the writing surrounding Gibson’s character is a little suspect.

While Rick Jarmin is presented as a cinematic everyman, he actually adopts the characteristics of a Mary Sue (or Gary Stu) who is inexplicably good at everything.

Throughout the course of the movie, Rick proves himself to be somewhat of a savant, who is naturally gifted at: hairdressing, automotive repair, carpentry, motorcycle riding, sharp shooting, piloting airplanes and triggering female orgasms.

Plus, all the peripheral characters never really comment on Rick’s genius-level intellect throughout the movie’s runtime, which only draws attention to this disconnect between the writing and the filmmaker’s intent.

That being said, Hawn’s character is treated far worse by the screenwriters, since she spends most of the movie screaming her lungs out and being useless.

Her performance actually reminded me a lot of Kate Capshaw from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom; a blond damsel who only exists to be in distress and get bailed out by the rugged male hero.

What’s especially disappointing is that the writers set her up as a smart and gutsy lawyer at the beginning of the movie, and I assumed that that quality was going to come in handy at some point later in the film.

But as soon as she meets up with Gibson, Hawn’s character quickly devolves into a brainless idiot, who never rises to the challenge or uses her intellect to get one up on the bad guys.

It’s not like I expected her to turn into Lisbeth Salander or something, but some kind of tangible character arc would have been welcome.

In fact, a great template for this character already existed in Robert Zemeckis’ Romancing the Stone (1984), where Kathleen Turner’s sheltered city slicker successfully adapts to life as an adventurer in the Columbian rainforest.

But I guess the screenwriters of Bird on a Wire never saw that film, since Hawn’s character continues to wear her high heels even after being chased by gun wielding thugs for several days.

Despite all this shoddy writing, Gibson and Hawn still manage to keep the film afloat through their natural chemistry alone, encouraging the audience to keep watching to see if their characters successfully reconcile in the end.

Coupled with director John Badham’s firm grasp of how to balance action and comedy, Bird on a Wire offers a fun escape for roughly two hours, even if it kind of falls apart in the third act.

But maybe this is the best kind of movie to sum up Gibson’s career, more so than the projects that have resulted in Oscar wins or major box office returns.

After all, Bird on a Wire is fun, charming, and easy on the eyes, even though it does harbor some major character flaws right beneath the surface.

To me, that seems to be an accurate summation of Gibson’s reputation in Hollywood at this point, even though the final chapters of his controversial career have yet to be written.

So while Bird on a Wire is far from perfect, it’s probably the perfect Mel Gibson movie, in the sense that you actively enjoy it against your better judgement.



Corner store companion:

Chef Boyardee ravioli (because you enjoy it, even though it contains some problematic ingredients)

Fun facts:

-Release date: May 18, 1990

-Budget: $20 million (estimated)

-Box office: $70,978,012 (US), $138,697,012 (worldwide)

-The title from this movie is taken from a 1969 Leonard Cohen song “Bird on the Wire.” A cover version of this single, composed by The Neville Brothers, was included on the film’s official soundtrack.

-The second unit director of Bird on a Wire was none other than Rob Cohen, who would go on to spearhead major action blockbusters like xXx (2002) and The Fast and the Furious (2001) years later.

-According to IMDB, the gigantic zoo exhibit featured in the climax of Bird on a Wire was the largest studio set ever built in Vancouver at the time. Much of the movie was shot in and around the British Columbia city.

-Before directing Bird on a Wire, John Badham is probably best known for helming Hollywood hits like Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Short Circuit (1986).

-The end credits for this film scroll up instead of down for some reason.

-Musical highlight: “Aquarius” by The 5th Dimension (this 90s synth cover of the famous medley by The 5th Dimension was arranged by composer Hans Zimmer and plays at the very beginning of the film).