[box cover]

J.W. Coop

The best American actors, post-Method, tend to be obsessive, which is why they often make great directors when working with slice-of-life material. They love enveloping themselves in strange worlds by way of impassioned eccentrics, like Robert Duvall in his fantastic depiction of evangelism, The Apostle, or Al Pacino as himself as Shakespeare's hunchbacked king in the absorbing Looking for Richard. Due to the unavoidable limiting effect of these passions (i.e., one can only be so insane about so many subjects), they also usually have only one or two decent movies in them. Cliff Robertson, a supremely undervalued thespian best known for his grandstanding, Oscar-winning performance as a mentally retarded man turned genius in Charly (1968), apparently had two consuming desires, flying and rodeo competition, which he parlayed into two memorable pictures, the interesting The Pilot (1979) and the superlative J.W. Coop (1972). The latter is a character study of uncommon texture, with Robertson discovering in his titular protagonist a potent metaphor for the self-destructive nature of the American cowboy mentality. Though far more modest in scope, it's every bit as eloquent on the subject as Philip Kaufman's The Right Stuff, if decidedly more cynical and tragic. Robertson's script, written with Gary Cartwright and Edwin Shrake, begins with Coop getting released from a lengthy stretch in the state penitentiary, where he brought the warden a good deal of glory as a star rider in the prison rodeo. Coop returns to an outside world where personal profit has superseded professional pride in all aspects of life, and he is ill-equipped to make sense of it all. The unattractive prospects of low-paying menial work and caring for his senile mother (Geraldine Page) are enough to send Coop hitchhiking for the nearest rodeo. The first half of the film finds him encountering blue collar dreamers who angrily spout the upper-class, anti-union rhetoric of the day as an extreme reaction to the hippie-ization of the youth culture, even as they embrace the security provided by their union champions. They're real Americans with typically outsized ambitions, and they're driven, at least vocally, toward their eventual attainment no matter how unlikely. Virtually broke, Coop must rely on the generosity of his fellow riders to re-enter the rodeo circuit, which he repays with absolute fidelity and graciousness. Though absent from competition for a long time, Coop finds that he still has the talent and grit to make a run for the national championship. All that stands in his way is money, which is precisely what the reining champ, Billy Gibbs (Wade Crosby), possesses in the form of a private jet that provides him passage to more competitions than ground transportation would allow. Coop, along with an idealistic young lover named Bean (attractive Ali McGraw doppelganger Christina Ferrare) he picks up along the way, is then forced to jettison his endearingly modest army truck for more affluent and refined air travel. Suddenly, camping out in the wild is supplanted by pampered nights spent in the bridal suites of luxurious midwestern hotels affording panoramic views of parking lots and shopping strips. Coop tells himself that this is the high life he's been working toward, the same dream expressed by so many of those he meets along the way, but it's a lie that threatens to drive away Bean and possibly cost him the coveted rodeo championship. J.W. Coop is in many ways the anti-Rocky — it's a movie that takes into account the inevitable corrupting of (in this case) athletic vision quests by corporate interests. It's discouraging to watch how Coop's pure, if aloof, endeavor gets co-opted without him even realizing it, but this is the unwitting fate many encounter in their promised pursuit of happiness. As a result, Robertson's film offers a snapshot of America that hasn't faded a bit. It's an intensely personal masterpiece bolstered by method authenticity, and it's absolutely ripe for rediscovery. There are a few nagging flaws, chief among them Ferrare's annoyingly one-note performance, but they aren't critical. The film's visual raggedness is actually appropriate for the unsentimental milieu. Columbia TriStar presents J.W. Coop in a worn, but watchable anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. Extras are limited to trailers for other Columbia DVDs. Keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks



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