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Hard Country
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by Jack Sommersby

"A Superior 'Urban Cowboy'"
3 stars

Dumped into U.S. theaters without much of an ad campaign, it died a quick box-office death, but it's ideal viewing for a rainy Saturday afternoon.

It’d be easy to merely compliment Hard Country on it being a superior Texas blue-collar tale to James Bridges’s odious Urban Cowboy from the year before, but I don’t think that would do this predictable but well-observed movie full justice. It’s no classic, but it’s got some of the gritty texture of the opening scenes of Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces, which found Jack Nicholson’s well-educated Bakersfield oil worker experiencing a mid-life crisis and making a decided change in his life; here, Jan-Michael Vincent has the lead role, and while he’s nowhere near Nicholson’s class he contributes a good staying-in-character performance that rings true. Vincent’s Kyle Richardson is dissatisfied with his job at a steel-fence manufacturer, manning a work station involving scraping the cruddy remains off the production line; it’s hot and dirty work, and though the paycheck is decent he’s continually being denied a promotion. And Kyle’s live-in girlfriend, Jodie Palmer (Kim Basinger), is just as unfulfilled with her nondescript job as a telephone operator -- she’s a “people person,” as she likes to describe herself, and finds the droning routine maddening; she had the chance to be a stewardess for Braniff earlier in life but put it off when her father got deathly ill so she could remain with her family in Midland, Texas. These two spend the majority of their evenings and the occasional late night at the city’s hottest club, the Stallion, which is chock-full of other blue-collar laborers, most of whom are machismo-fueled yahoos; thankfully, it doesn’t have that heavily metaphoric mechanical bull that was the centerpiece at the Houston country hot spot Gilley’s in Urban Cowboy, but there is a small pudgy thing affixed to the floor that reads “Shitkickers Take It Out Here” for the men to kick and take out their frustrations on. Despite his dead-end job, Kyle is content enough with his meager life, but Jodie, whose staunch Christian mother is now remarried to a good man, wants something more, and when a co-worker tells her an airline is doing interviews for stewardess positions at the Holiday Inn, Jodie attends it and makes a persuasive impression that earns her a training spot in Los Angeles. Kyle has had a shot at something better-paying for a while now thanks to his successful older brother Royce (Michael Parks) who has the biggest mobile-home dealership in three counties; he wants Kyle to come on board, but even though Kyle has had to borrow money from him from time to time, he sees that even though Royce has a big house and swimming pool and expensive cars and a blonde bombshell of a wife, this just isn’t the life he’s meant for, yet he’s stubborn to Jodie’s insistence that California would be the place to get a fresh start on their nondescript lives. Both Kyle and Jodie are native Texans, and while Jodie is willing to uproot herself, Kyle isn’t -- he insists he’ll never leave. It’s these two three-dimensional characterizations we see the movie from, which is a good thing because the secondary characters aren’t quite up to snuff -- they’re more on the order of talking heads so our hero and heroine have people to bounce their dreams and frustrations off of. Luckily, Vincent and Basinger are good enough that they succeed in carrying the kinda-stale story over its rough patches.

Vincent demonstrated solidity in the B-action pictures White Line Fever and Damnation Alley, and managed to hold his own opposite Burt Reynolds in Hooper as a cocky up-and-coming movie stuntman. I don’t think he has it in him to do “classics,” and when the camera rests on him in close-ups he’s unable to suggest much of an interior life, but the role of Kyle fits him like a glove, and there’s never a scene when we want less of him. Admirably deglamourized with longish hair and a bushy mustache, Vincent looks the part, all right, and his Everyman portrait has weight -- you can see how Kyle is caught between wanting to please Jodie yet rueful over his missteps in life that up and leaving Texas would be admitting to in a way. (There’s a lovely bit where Kyle gives Jodie a necklace for their one-year anniversary of a miniature Lone Star beer bottle, and you can see in Kyle’s eyes that he’s proud of coming up with the best gift he knows how.) And Basinger, in her first leading role, matches him scene after scene. It can be difficult for a gorgeous actress to convince amid a working-class milieu a movie has taken great pains to etch, but Basinger is willing to sublimate her beauty and come off as dowdy, as well as uncertain, and when she tells her best friend “I’d love to be a woman in California” it’s without any stereotypical feminist pretensions and not italicized like a lesser actress would serve up. Vincent and Basinger look good together, and you can clearly see they’ve got the necessary chemistry going on -- if we didn’t believe in their characters’ devotion to one another, the movie would collapse. (Urban Cowboy’s John Travolta and Debra Winger are superior actors, yes, but they were defeated by their woefully developed roles, and we didn’t give a damn whether their estranged characters got back together or not.) Oh, Hard Country isn’t without its simplicities. In a cockamamie contrivance, Jodie’s best friend from high school who’s made it as a famous country-and-western singer comes to visit, and just so she can put dreams of California in Jodie’s head and Kyle can berate the singer’s priggish manager for wearing shoes without socks and saying California is full of nothing but “salad heads.” And there’s a detestable bit that should have been left on the cutting-room floor of a drunken and jealous Royce trying to rape Jodie while Kyle is outside on the lot trying to make his first sale. And perhaps the concluding sequence of a wised-up Kyle rushing to the airport to apologize to Jodie, which involves a car crash and Kyle being chased by security personnel, is too cliched and melodramatic. But on the whole Hard Country is involving, affecting stuff even if it doesn’t exactly break any new ground. It’s one of those things that isn’t likely to reach a wide audience, and it has some of the down-home quaintness that benefited another similar small movie, Waltz Across Texas. The director, David Greene, has been working for twenty-eight years, and while nothing indicative of a distinctive visual style has been bestowed upon him, his matter-of-factness benefits the material in that a higher grade of craftsmanship would probably call more attention to the movie’s derivativeness, like truly extraordinary acting also would. Hard Country sets its sights mid-level, ably sticks within its parameters, and emerges an unremarkable but fine entertainment.

Available in a full-frame DVD without even a trailer for a special feature.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=29333&reviewer=327
originally posted: 06/20/15 07:49:01
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  14-Apr-1981 (R)

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