Film: "Unforgiven"

Stars: Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman and Richard Harris

Theaters: Eastland, Woodland Hills, Annex, Admiral Drive-in

and Cinema 8 (Broken Arrow and Sand Springs)

Rating: R (violence, language)

Quality: FOUR STARS (on a scale of zero to five stars)

Late in Clint Eastwood's new Western "Unforgiven," there

is a moment when certain members of the audience will always

chuckle with anticipation, as they did during the preview

screening Tuesday night.

It's the moment when they know ol' Clint's going to grit

his teeth, squint menacingly, and wrap all the plot complications

up neatly with a fusillade of hot lead.

In a way, that's what happens - but in a more important

way, it isn't ... and if some patrons exit the theater feeling

that the brand of mayhem they got wasn't quite what they'd

bargained for, that will probably suit the star just fine.

Eastwood, who also directed, has obviously been itching

to shed the last vestiges of his popular but two-dimensional

Dirty Harry and Man with No Name characterizations for some

time. His portrayal of John Huston in the recent "White

Hunter, Black Heart" was an example of the complexity he's

been striving for.

That film, though ambitious, was too introspective to capture

the popular imagination, and Eastwood's own performance

was so quirky and against type that even die-hard Clint

fans couldn't accept him in the role.

Those problems have been solved with a flourish in "Unforgiven,"

which is probably the most dramatically satisfying film

the star has ever made. Though a movie by Clint Eastwood,

it's not what we think of as a Clint Eastwood movie.

That isn't to say that Clint's suddenly decided to abandon

his audience and turn out art films. This is a Western with

all the trappings - alternately entertaining, melodramatic

and brutal, with strong performances and enough violence

to satisfy any thrill-seeker this side of the seriously disturbed.

The thing that this isn't is a junk movie. What those preview

audience members were anticipating was that pseudo-cathartic

moment when John Wayne used to bawl "The hell I will,"

and push a quart of knuckles into some poor jerk's face

for our amusement - or, more recently, when Arnold Schwartzenegger

or one of his clones stops trying to act and reaches for

the heavy armament.

"Unforgiven" is driven by violence, but this is violence

with real consequences. The action of the entire movie revolves

around a vicious attack on a prostitute (Anna Thomson) by

a cowboy in a small Wyoming town. Strawberry Alice (Frances

Fisher) and the other ladies of the house pool their resources

to post a bounty on the heads of the assailant and his partner.

The news travels all the way to Kansas, where Will Munny

(Eastwood) and his two small children are trying to scratch

out an existence on a pathetic hog farm. Munny was once

a dangerous outlaw of some repute, and he's spent the last

11 years trying to put his violent past behind him.

An annoying young man who calls himself the Schofield Kid

(Jaimz Woolvett) arrives looking for a partner to help collect

the bounty, and the thought of all that cash is more than

even a reformed outlaw can bear. Adding his former partner

Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) to the mix, Munny agrees to accompany the Kid.

There's a lot of comedy in the early parts of this film,

much of it based on Eastwood's ineptitude as a horseman

after so many years among the pigs. A number of light moments

are provided by the excellent cast, particularly Freeman

and Woolvett as uncomfortable traveling companions.

Gene Hackman plays Little Bill Daggett, the sheriff of the

Wyoming town at the trail's end. Hackman's character is

a smiling, affable sadist who keeps the peace at all costs,

and his are among the most effective (and unsettling) scenes

in the picture.

One of the aims of "Unforgiven" is to demythologize the

West, and there are moments when it's reminiscent of other

pictures with similar goals, like "The Missouri Breaks" or "Will Penny."

Where Eastwood's film parts company with those others is

its determination to paint its leading characters as the

murderous scum the real-life Western desperadoes were, their

reputations less the stuff of fact than the fantasies spun

by pulp writers like W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek) and swallowed

whole by a gullible public.

Richard Harris puts in an effective featured appearance

as English Bob, a hired killer celebrated in one of Beauchamp's

dime novels as "The Duke of Death." His confrontation

with Little Bill, who's determined to prevent the bounty

from being collected, falls far short of the clash of titans

a lesser film would have presented, but is quite likely

just what would have happened in the real West.

The script by David Webb Peoples does a credible job of

capturing the cowboys' dialogue, a Victorian way of speaking

that's been mutated into something cruder and more profane.

Eastwood's direction is admirably straightforward, making

use of naturalistic lighting and no camera tricks. With

this cast, he wisely lets his actors simply play out the

scenes, some in quite leisurely fashion. The best kind of

direction is the kind that stays out of the way, and that's

what he's provided here.

"Unforgiven" is a story that looks at violence begetting

violence in almost Biblical terms, the grimness of its message

lightened by uniformly fine and accessible performances.

It's not a movie for kids, but it's a fine movie for any

adult who doesn't mind thinking a little after the hot lead has flown.