Butch Cassidy rides again in "Blackthorn," but this time he's grayer, warier, wiser. Sam Shepard steps into the iconic role, and he fills Paul Newman's cowboy boots spectacularly. In this imaginative bit of mythmaking, the old gunslinger evaded that fateful ambush by the Bolivian army, took the name James Blackthorn and spent 20 years in peaceful obscurity, raising horses in the High Andes and banking his money like any upright citizen. His last wish is to visit Etta Place's grown son back in America, a young man who might be the Sundance Kid's boy or his own.
Then along comes a first-time robber (Eduardo Noriega) who derails the plan, and Butch has no choice but to strap on his six-shooter and grudgingly ride with the greenhorn.
Spanish director Mateo Gil reappraises the last desperado's legend in a funny, violent examination of America and American cowboy films. The film derives a lot of inspiration from George Roy Hill's 1969 "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," offering a little of everything -- action, adventure, drama, romance and wit. No matter how dangerous the situation, Butch has a cantankerous one-liner ready. It's virtually impossible not to like this vinegary gentleman bandit.
Gil is equally influenced by Sergio Leone's sweeping, flashback-heavy spaghetti westerns. Working against traditional concepts of heroism, his troubled, darkly humorous protagonists are driven by greed, revenge and a rough sense of justice. The veteran Irish actor Stephen Rea shares several sharp scenes with Shepard as an alcoholic former Pinkerton detective who always suspected Butch was in hiding. Gil keeps us guessing whether the old lawman will turn Butch in to redeem his reputation or set his respected adversary free.
The film is neatly paced, well-acted (the charismatic Noriega holds his own against his formidable co-star) and filmed in some of South America's most gorgeous landscapes. The scenes shot by ace cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchia ("Glengarry Glen Ross") in Bolivia's great salt desert are simply otherworldly. "True Grit" proved that the right kind of western could still be a marketable commodity. "Blackthorn" proves that surprise hit was no fluke. They really can make 'em like they used to.