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Case Number 02348

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Urban Cowboy

Paramount // 1980 // 134 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Chief Counsel Rob Lineberger (Retired) // October 30th, 2002

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All Rise...

The Charge

Hard Hat Days And Honky-Tonk Nights.

Opening Statement

Urban Cowboy is a straightforward tale dolled up all fancy. Most the time it didn't get me too riled. It's mostly a tale of that little spitfire Sissy, a tall drink of water name of Bud, and the biggest honky-tonk on this green earth. Sissy's real easy on the eyes, and she's 'bout more woman than Bud can handle. Speakin' a Bud, that boy sure knows his way around the dance floor, and ain't too poor a bull-rider neither. Of course there was that shifty-eyed feller causin' some trouble, but y'all know things wouldn't get too out of hand, don'tcha?

Facts of the Case

Bud (John Travolta) leaves the family farm to find work that is more lucrative in Houston. He stays with his aunt and uncle, who waste no time introducing him to Gilley's, a famous, enormous honky-tonk compound. Bud gets a grueling job working for the oil company with his Uncle Bob. He spends his days working and his nights at Gilley's.

There he meets Sissy (Debra Winger), a cute but indomitable cowgirl. She sidles up to him and asks him to dance (neat scene, that one). One dance turns into many, and before you know it, they are married. So far so good. But two things arrive that introduce chaos into their trailer-park nirvana: The electric bull and the man operating it.

The electric bull gives city folk the means to live out their rodeo aspirations. The bull ride is a compelling but dangerous eight seconds of exhilaration. Staying on requires skill, strength, and determination. The man operating the Gilley's bull is Wes (Scott Glenn), a former bank robber let out on parole. Menacing, sardonic, and frugal of word and action, he immediately crawls under Bud's skin. He crawls under Sissy's skin too, but in a way that makes Bud hotter than a Texas jackrabbit.

Bud's emotions spiral out of control, and he gets beaten up by Wes in a diner. Later, Wes breaks Bud's arm with the bull. Oh, it's on now!

His relationship with Sissy on the rocks, Bud takes to practicing bull riding. His goal is to win the $5000 purse in the Gilley's electronic bull riding rodeo. Why is he so driven? Is it the money, the fame, mastery of the bull, or to win Sissy back?

The Evidence

Urban Cowboy rounds out the "dance pack" recently released by Paramount. I've noticed a trend in most of these discs: bare bones release with no transfer clean up, moderate sound cleanup, and a stinging slap on the rear on the way out the door. (Saturday Night Fever and Grease being notable exceptions.) When I opened the DVD case to see the cover shot repeated on the chapter list inside, I thought, "Here we go again." If they can't even find the effort to put a different picture inside, what kind of effort did they put into the disc?

I was surprised to find a visually and sonically appealing menu with a couple extras thrown in. Not an overwhelmingly special edition, mind you, but some attention was paid to this DVD. And it may be my imagination, but I think they cleaned up the transfer in the first ten minutes or so to give a good first impression. The picture was still grainy and had some scratches, but it wasn't as noticeably bad as Flashdance, Footloose, and Staying Alive. Later I noticed uneven blacks, poor shadow detail, low contrast, and pedestrian cinematography. The sound was clean enough, if not remarkable. A serviceable enough job to neither distract from the film nor distinguish it.

Urban Cowboy is a romantic comedy without the comedy. Boy meets girl, they get together, boy loses girl, fights with the girl a bunch, and gets her back. I hope that wasn't a spoiler for those who haven't seen any romances in the last 30 years. What Urban Cowboy brings to the table is a honky-tonk flavor, a bit of cowboy cool, and some great Texas-style jams by the likes of the Charlie Daniels Band, Bob Seger, Boz Scaggs, Bonnie Raitt, Kenny Rogers, Linda Ronstadt, and others. I was toe tapping at times, crying into my beer at others.

One neat aspect of the film was the dynamic between Sissy and Bud. Real sparks fly between them. Their relationship seems natural, unforced, and therefore more compelling. Debra Winger is able to summon rage, innocence, flirtation, resolve, fear, love, and sorrow just in her eyes. Travolta uses tone, posture, and facial expressions to portray a completely unique character. Together, their relationship breathes. They flirt, fight, fornicate, basically subsist. Despite their least-common denominator emotional antics, I found myself rooting for them to work.

The supporting cast adds to the realism. With few exceptions, no character seems out of place.

Though I found Urban Cowboy flat in tone, I appreciate how the strife escalates after they get married. Urban Cowboy contains many clichés, but it did not read as a cliché itself. Typically, the wedding is the climax, and we see nothing afterward. This movie picks up speed after the marriage, which is a nice spin on the traditional timeline.

There's no good way to say this, but Sissy using the bull as a sexual symbol to denigrate Bud was classic. If you skip the rest of the movie, you should watch this scene at least. It is simultaneously hilarious, dramatic, symbolic, spiteful, and erotic. Incidentally, Debra's practice on the bull is one of the extras, along with outtakes of Travolta mixing it up on the dance floor.

I grew up in North Carolina tobacco country. It isn't Texas per se, but the attitudes, personalities, and outlook portrayed in this film reminded me a lot of the good ole boys I went to high school with. At one point in my life, I lived in a trailer, hung out with tobacco spitting rednecks, and spoke with an extreme drawl. So in my informed outsider's opinion, Urban Cowboy gets full marks for demographic realism. Having visited Houston recently, I get the feeling they exaggerated some aspects of the Texas lifestyle for this movie, but I imagine the Gilley's scenes were pretty accurate.

In the end, the realism isn't always what matters. This movie brought "cowboy" into pop culture in a big way. The soundtrack went triple platinum, which was quite a feat for its time. If you asked me, "which dance movie would you most enjoy out of Staying Alive, Flashdance, Footloose, and Urban Cowboy?," Urban Cowboy would probably have been the last one I'd pick. Yet I liked it the most. Go figure.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

Some parts of this movie were so transparent that it was laughable. Uncle Bob takes Bud aside and shares the wealth of his knowledge about love, then walks up the stairs of the oil rig while lightning crackles menacingly in the background. Can you guess what happens next?

Where the film really falters is in "conflict management." Urban Cowboy drawls on without conflict for too long, and when conflict is finally introduced, it isn't dramatic enough. The two primary sources of conflict I picked up on were the bull as a symbol for traditional male concerns, and Wes the convict as a threat to Bud's relationship. Before Wes enters the picture, Urban Cowboy is devoid of any dramatic tension. When he does enter the picture, it is so clear where the film is heading that we are not surprised. And though Wes does prove himself to be vile and repugnant in the end, he seems reasonably okay for most of the story. Not much conflict there. Bud does undergo a revelation about love and pride, and it is interesting to see how stubborn he is. But the resolution of that stubbornness is sudden, expected, and too neat.

Like Staying Alive, Urban Cowboy is a film that suffers for trying to replicate the Saturday Night Fever magic. These two films, and to a lesser degree Flashdance, fail because they try to reduce Saturday Night Fever to a formula. It is plausible to characterize Urban Cowboy as a honky-tonk Saturday Night Fever, which adds a certain tinge of exploitation to the proceedings. Packaging all these movies together invites comparison among them, and in my opinion, only Saturday Night Feverand Grease emerge as truly original films. Coincidentally, those two were given the best treatment.

Closing Statement

None of this matters to fans of Urban Cowboy or to those who appreciate good romances. Though Urban Cowboy drags in parts, doesn't ever really surprise, and doesn't have too many peaks and valleys, it is a solid romance with fine performances and great music. The film stands on the thorough characterizations put forth by Travolta, Winger, and Scott Glenn. There is something compelling about the film; when it was over, I didn't feel challenged or broadened, but somehow soothed. The emotional love story helps you ignore the faults and enjoy Urban Cowboy for what it is.

If you want a movie that you can put in and just watch for the fun of it, Urban Cowboy might be for you. If you like the "redneck" thang, you probably stopped reading as soon as you read the word "indomitable" and likely bought this DVD a while back. If you think the idea of a movie about riding electric bulls sounds stupid, stay away. Finally, there are no hard edges or major conflicts in this film, so use that to guide you.

The Verdict

On the count of Hard Hat Days, Urban Cowboy is guilty of laboring under false credentials. This wasn't really a story about hard work and nobody buys your phony act. On the count of Honky-Tonk Nights, well shoot, that's more like it. Have a beer and kick back awhile. Travolta is to be commended for his hard work in putting forth another believable character. The time he puts into learn dancing, bull riding, and honky-tonk swaggering are worth it. Debra Winger is welcome in this courtroom anytime.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 75
Audio: 85
Extras: 45
Acting: 90
Story: 75
Judgment: 84

Perp Profile

Studio: Paramount
Video Formats:
• 2.35:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (French)
• English
• French
• Portuguese
• Spanish
Running Time: 134 Minutes
Release Year: 1980
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
• Concerts and Musicals
• Drama
• Romance
• Western

Distinguishing Marks

• Rehearsal Footage
• Outtakes

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Review content copyright © 2002 Rob Lineberger; Site design and review layout copyright © 2016 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.