Cowboy Up

Starring: Kiefer Sutherland, Molly Ringwald, Darryl Hannah

Director: Xavier Koller
Released: 2001

Mood: If you want to torture someone with a movie that goes nowhere and does nothing until the very end when what it does is f*cking terrible.

Good things come to those who wait, and y’all have waited long enough for one of my scathing rants about a shitty Western. There were a few kinda ‘meh’ movies and books in the last few months, but nothing really and truly awful. 

Then Cowboy Up came along. 

It takes a lot to make a bad movie around Kiefer Sutherland. A LOT. His Western track record is excellent – Forsaken and Young Guns are both outstanding movies. 

In fact, just stop reading this review, stop considering watching the travesty that is Cowboy Up, and go find a copy of Forsaken to watch instead. (Walmart sells it for $5, which is also a f*cking travesty.)

If you’re still here, I did promise you a rant. Let’s begin. 

This review contains spoilers, but that shouldn’t matter because you’re a smart person who won’t waste your time watching this awful movie!

Cowboy Up is a modern Western about the rodeo scene. I was stoked for a change of pace from my usual old-timey Westerns. The opening credits are a bunch of quasi-artistic slow-mo shots of bull riders getting ready to compete. You can tell right away that it’s either going to be really good, or really bad.

It’s REALLY F*CKING BAD. By the way, the DVD (yes, this atrocity went straight to DVD) has all the cuss words edited out. So I’m going to make up for it in this review. 

Ely Braxton (Marcus Thomas) opens the movie with a great ride, then gets trampled by a bull. He’s laid up for a long time, but all the while he has his sweetheart of a big brother (Kiefer Sutherland), and doting vet girlfriend (Molly Ringwald) by his side. 

Everyone has forbidden him to compete again. But of course, bull riding ‘chose him’ so he can’t stay away. Ely is immediately drawn back into the ring, but he’s not the same man. He gets dizzy spells, so he turns to prescription drugs, and he takes stupid risks that end up in tragedy.

illustration of a fancy moustache

There are so many things wrong with this movie, I don’t even know where to begin. 

Just kidding! The biggest problem with Cowboy Up is that Marcus Thomas can’t act and the entire f*cking story is hinged on him. From his first scenes you don’t like him or buy into his character, so you literally do not give a shit if he stays with his girlfriend or not, if he gets hurt again or not, if he wins or not… 

His character starts off uninteresting and quickly becomes despicably selfish and rude. It’s meant to depict the horrifying, life-altering effects of a severe concussion. The whole ‘cowboy up’ thing is about how athletes, particularly male athletes, are expected to tough it out and play through the pain. I’ve actually experienced this myself.

But because you never got to like Ely, it doesn’t feel shocking or sad when he starts acting like an asshat, so the warning about concussions is totally lost unless you already know it.

Let me put it this way: I felt the same level of emotional connection to Ely as I did those ‘troubled’ teens in after school specials about the dangers of drugs – which is zero percent giving a f*ck. Even when he’s supposed to be raging with anger, his delivery is so flat that you just feel bad for everyone else in the scene. 

And then there’s the rest of the movie

  • Molly Ringwald is okay, but the storytelling makes her character confusing – you don’t know if you’re supposed to want them to stay together or not, and you don’t care because seriously this guy sucks
  • Daryl Hannah plays a f*cking RODEO QUEEN, a barrel racing champion, and yet her character has no depth and could have been written out and it wouldn’t make a difference other than one more reason you don’t like Ely
  • Celia (Hannah) and Ely have no chemistry, but then again, nobody in this movie has any chemistry except when they’re with Hank (Sutherland) – and that’s because the poor guy is acting twice as hard to make up for the crap story, dialogue, and performances around him
  • The credits say ‘special appearance by Russell Means’, and then he is literally out of focus for half of his screentime and has almost no dialogue, which is a total waste of Russell Means!
  • The flashbacks make NO SENSE, like you know there’s some kind of childhood conflict but you don’t get it… and then when you do, it’s kind of unoriginal
illustration of a fancy moustache

SPOILER AHEAD.

The worst part is that Kiefer still does a good job, surrounded by all this vapid garbage. He’s so earnest and genuine, even when you think it’s kind of unrealistic that his character would forgive his brother (and so quickly) for all the shit he pulls. Kiefer is one of those actors who can literally tell a whole story with his eyes. 

Hank is the only character that feels like a real person, that creates any kind of connection. So of course they have to go and kill him off in a horrible way. 

What is the moral of this story? That you get to treat Kiefer like shit and then he dies so everyone forgives you?! What the actual f*ck?

Look, I grew up going to the local rodeo every damn year. I LOVE rodeos. And I love the concept of a movie about a guy who has bull riding or any other rodeo sport in his blood, to the point where it hurts everyone around him while he chases his dream. There was a good story buried in Cowboy Up, somewhere.  

There are lots of movies about good people who get hurt, physically or emotionally, and make bad choices. And you go along with the movie because you care about the outcome. But there’s nothing here to make you keep watching. NOTHING. I kept checking the time, because I just wanted it to be over.

And that’s the other frustrating thing. I thought when it was over, I’d just be annoyed. Instead, I was SAD because at the last minute they make it a f*cking drama. I guess it was supposed to be a drama the whole time (IMDb lists it as drama/romance/Western, in that order), but because Marcus Thomas is so boring I didn’t feel any drama. 

What I did feel was burning desire to turn off the movie and watch Forsaken to confirm my faith in Kiefer Sutherland Westerns. Which I did the moment those final credits rolled.