RICHARD GIBSON

Freelance Writer and Editor

Article published in Film & TV Week for IPC Magazines

WOODY HARRELSON - THE COWBOY WAY

 

When the song at the opening of Sky movies’ film, The Cowboy Way, exhorts mothers not to let their babies grow up to be cowboys, it could have added: ‘If they ever do grow up.’ And in the case of Woody Harrelson’s Pepper Lewis, Mama may have to wait some time for that.

 

In this engaging, if sometimes improbable yarn about two rodeo champions who bring their cowboy skills to the underbelly of New York on a mission to free the daughter of a friend from a villainous sweatshop shark, Harrelson teams up with Keifer Sutherland, as his not-so-dumb buddy Sonny Gilstrap

Sutherland is sensible and loyal, and eventually gets the girl, while Harrelson’s perch on the cusp of hick imbelicility lands him in some diverting Crocodile Dundee situations, culminating in his modelling – and amply filling – Calvin Klein underpants on a massive billboard in Times Square. 

Credibility is stretched almost to breaking when the two, in pursuit of a subway train, hi-jack a pair of police horses and miraculously navigate a route to the Brooklyn Bridge without hesitation, and actually snaps when Pepper rides pillion on the horse of a rodeo-anorak mounted cop. 

When they come, one day, to make The Woody Harrelson Story, many might accuse that script of being far-fetched, too. When the actor’s hit-man father, Charles Harrelson received a double life jail sentence in 1982 for the murder of a judge ‘Maximum John’ Wood, the judge on the case described him as: ‘The most vicious, heartless, cold-blooded killer I have ever come across.’ 

This, and the speculation that he was one of the three famous ‘grassy knoll tramps’ seen at President Kennedy’s assassination, would seem to suggest few shared genes between this man and the affable turnip-head characters with which his son has long been associated – from his 10-year stint as bumbling barman Woody Boyd in the television sitcom, Cheers, through his goofy honky basketball hustler opposite Wesley Snipes in White Men Can’t Jump, to Michael J Fox’s unsuccessful romantic rival in Doc Hollywood, and the impoverished husband whose wife accepted Robert Redford’s largesse in Indecent Proposal.

But there is a lean, lustful energy that glimmers beneath each of Harrelson’s performances that the director Oliver Stone was smart enough to tap into for the part of the nut who kills for thrills in his controversial Natural Born Killers, and which, even in his most apparently passive moments on screen, hints at the passion of the man beneath.

When we first see him in the opening sequence of the Cowboy Way, mounted in the stall, about to enter the ring, the taut playful wickedness on his face, and the sharpness and drive in his eyes reveal a dangerous excitement that instantly convey the atmosphere of the event. 

His intelligently outspoken championing of environmental issues, as well as the contrast between his almost geeky looks and the tight, sculpted texture of his complexion, have made him suitable to play across a range of parts, and freed him from the scourge of typecasting.