TV Reviews : 'Good Old Boys' Sees Birth of New West

The Western is so ingrained with outlaws, gunslingers and saloons that it's hard to imagine any other approach. But Tommy Lee Jones draws on a radically different picture of the West in TNT's "The Good Old Boys," which he co-wrote, stars in and directs.

Adapted from Elmer Kelton's novel about a turn-of-the-century saddle tramp who has outlived the frontier, this circa-1906 film is a quieter, gentler Western that ensnares its audience as surely as an album of poignant and raffish snapshots.

Among the portraits are flavorful characters who don't realize just how fast Model T's are beginning to replace mules. Only an idealistic young farmhand fascinated by cars (Matt Damon) senses the mechanical future. Most others are innocents living on a great historical divide.

In an unexpected way, this view of the New West at the dawn of the 20th Century mirrors our own innocence on the cusp of the 21st.

This is a Western without gunfire or even the threat of serious violence. The characters and builders we see, to quote novelist Kelton, are the West's "main event," not the storied gunslingers whom Kelton brushes off as "the sideshow."

Jones' direction has an easy, indirect, sidesaddle brand of warmth, and his turn as the middle-aged cowboy protagonist Hewey Calloway is as distinct as a clod of dirt.

Jones' script (co-written with J. T. Allen, who wrote TNT's recent "Geronimo") catches a landscape changing with such swift subtlety--steam engines, combines and derricks materializing like tumbleweed--that Jones' irresistible man of the range forecasts the relic that the Western cowboy was to become. * "The Good Old Boys" airs at 5 and 8 p.m. Sunday on cable's TNT.

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