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)
-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)