TLA Releasing // 2003 // 92 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Brett Cullum // March 14th, 2005
Straight guy Shane [to gay guy Vincent] with arms outstretched to the sky: "You've worked your magic on me, and I'll never be the same again!"
Cowboys and Angels paints a charming cliché: a movie that incorporates elements we've seen before, but does so with enough outright affableness that you hopefully won't mind much. Call it "Queer Eye for the Straight Irish Guy" meets Trainspotting "light." I found it a sweet film that goes down easily, and which should thrill fans of gay cinema for its non-issue treatment of sexuality. It takes a nice important step towards movies where "straight" and "gay" don't matter so much as "relationships." I wish, though, that it had found a way to present its "coming of age" parable in a more original way in terms of its plot developments. We're faced with the old two steps forward and one step back formula, but I don't mind dancing with Cowboys and Angels. There are two really solid performances here despite the melodramatic trappings, and also a rare glimpse of what Ireland is like today.
Shane Butler (Michael Legge, the lead from Angela's Ashes) wants to move out into the big city and find himself. He's trapped in a civil service job in Limerick City, Ireland. He can't find an apartment in the center of town that's affordable, so he agrees to share a flat with an old school acquaintance named Vincent (Irish television veteran Allen Leech). Vincent studies fashion at the local art college, and dreams of making it big and hitting New York City when he graduates. He's everything Shane is not -- hip, self-confident, ambitious, and gay. He's got a lot to teach Shane about how to make it in the big city -- and Shane has quite a few lessons to learn on his own. He gets made over by Vincent, falls in love with a girl named Gemma who is friends with his flatmate (Amy Shiels, Veronica Guerin), and hangs with the wrong crowd, including the drug dealer downstairs named Keith (David Murray, King Arthur). Shane ends up in a lot of trouble when he agrees to "mule" drugs for Keith (they nickname the new smuggler "Cowboy"). Can he take the advice of Vincent, find a way to get his life together, be fabulous, and chase his dreams?
Cowboys and Angels has a lot going on in it, but at its heart it's a pretty nice and normal relationship between two young men. Vincent and Shane may be of differing sexual orientations, but they care for each other as brothers by the end of the film. I applaud the movie for portraying their relationship in completely non-sexual terms. Vincent helps Shane, but never vies for his affections other than as friend. Shane is completely nonplussed by his roommate's orientation, and admires him for the good character he sees before him. They both respect each other, and I loved that they bond over facing life rather than dealing with each other's sexuality. It's a buddy movie that is extremely forward-thinking in this respect.
Another fascinating aspect of the film is its look at Limerick City. The city has recently become a mecca in Ireland, and its economy has completely turned around. Where once resided the poor and unemployed, you now can find hip young urban professionals and a vibrant nightlife. Cowboys and Angels captures a side of Ireland few of us are familiar with: the new, hopeful, and urbane side. It seems ironic that Michael Legge's face was used predominantly in the poster for Angela's Ashes, which chronicled a more desperate time in Ireland's history. Here now, all grown up, he is the face of a more vibrant, hip country. It's nice to see a happy, hopeful story told in such a neat setting.
The film is not rated; I doubt it would garner more than a PG-13 here in the United States. There is some drug usage and mild violence, but very few sex scenes (none graphic). It's an uplifting, positive film that won't offend many people. TLA Releasing has done an admirable job with the transfer. The widescreen picture has great colors and well-controlled black levels. It does appear slightly soft in some scenes, and I did see minor grain and dirt, but overall the image is good. The sound mix is a well done five-channel treatment that kicks in well in the club sequences. Included are some deleted scenes which range from simple throwaways to one or two that could have helped flesh out the plot. A scene elaborating Shane's relationship with Gemma, and a sequence of Shane and Vincent taking pictures, seem to have the most effect and probably should have been in the final cut. There is a nice commentary with the director and his two leads (the box claims only the director), primarily discussing the technical process of making the film. Also included is a director's statement, which states the obvious theme of the film.
Cowboys and Angels reeks of typical melodrama. The story about an innocent moving to the big bad city and falling prey to sordid vices is an old one. The love story is typical and advances as you would expect. No surprises wait for you in the film in terms of plotting or in the way things resolve. There is nothing here we haven't seen before, and about the only thing going for it is the relationship between Shane and Vincent. American critics nailed Cowboys and Angels, claiming it is facile and riddled with clichés. The movie does fall into familiar territory that's more often the subject of after-school specials. The whole "drugs are bad" subplot seems simple, and it's resolved too neatly. Some of the gay elements go too far when Vincent makes over Shane. It's fine to make a frumpy Irishman update his wardrobe and get a better haircut, but making him ditch his sweaters and wear make-up seems criminal and too fey even for a "queer eye." The girl for whom Shane pines is never defined very well, and we're not sure where she stands on any of this. She likes Shane's make-over, but seems hopelessly drawn to Vincent and, at one point, another girl. You get the sense there could be a sequel exploring her sexuality, which is ambiguous throughout.
It's far from perfect, but Cowboys and Angels does paint a nice picture of two friends in the end. It has a good heart, and I was charmed by the two leads. Michael Legge and Allen Leech have great chemistry, and both turn in fine performances that show the reality of a straight guy living with a gay guy. The movie didn't need drugs or make-overs to show us that. It does get bogged down with the trimmings of a stereotypical and trite melodrama, but a lot of people are going to sigh relief to see a movie where sexuality is treated off-handedly rather than as an obstacle everyone has to come to terms with. For that it wins major points in my book. Because, in the end, we're all just people looking for a way to make our lives better and more rich, and that experience is a lot easier when we're together. Here's hoping more movies find this out.
Cowboys and Angels is guilty of having a "been there, done that" quality with its tale of drugs and the dangers of the big city, but it makes a compelling argument for friendship. How can I find anything wrong with that? TLA Releasing offers a great package for the film, including a nice transfer and some great extras.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: TLA Releasing
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 92 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Commentary with Director David Gleeson and Lead Actors Michael Legge and Allen Leech
* Deleted Scenes
* Director's Statement (text)