Michael Legge, who plays the central character in the Irish coming-of-age film Cowboys & Angels, lends credence to that old adage from a famous director (or maybe it was a bunch of them): casting is the most important element in making a good movie.
From the first time the camera closes in on Legge, you feel his vulnerability. Playing 20-year-old Shane Butler, Legge has one of those faces that hasn't changed since his fourth-grade class photo. He's this precious little manchild breaking away from the comforts of home, and you're immediately on his side and will stay there for the next 89 minutes despite the wicked shit that will come his way—and that he'll foist on others.
Shane is geeked up, out of sorts and near-cripplingly lonely, seeking not just the attentions of the opposite sex but any human interaction. He's a frustrated sketch artist who has been sleepwalking through a civil-service job for a year following the death of his father, the only change to his mind-numbing routine coming when he leaves his overbearing mother and moves into an apartment in the center of Limerick—home of Angela's Ashes' author Frank McCourt, who Legge played as a young man in the movie version.
Shane is roomed, through a twist of fate, with Vincent, an old acquaintance from school. Vincent (Allen Leech) is everything Shane is not: upbeat. Driven. Confident. Effervescent. Gay. After a brief period keeping his distance from his new roomy, Vincent eventually warms up to the lug and gives him a complimentary Queer Eye for the Straight Loser Guy makeover, something Vincent is quite adept at doing considering he's a fashion student at Limerick's art school, he possesses an impeccable sense of style and—oh, yeah—he's GAY!!!
Shane slowly transforms, peeling himself off the wall he's been flowering. He hits on Vincent's pretty art-school friend Gemma (Amy Shiels), who's supposedly into girls but Vincent's gaydar registers that she's really into guys. Shane also buddies up to everybody's favorite downstairs drug dealer Keith (David Murray), who sees blank-faced innocent Shane as the perfect mule to cart drugs up from Dublin. The hard cash for an easy day's work is too much for Shane to pass up, especially since he's toying with the idea of applying to Vincent and Gemma's art school, but the trip turns fateful and the young man can't help but descend into badness.
Admittedly, there's a lot to quibble with in Cowboys & Angels. Shane and some of his pals are hit with major, life-changing events in a matter of days, events that would unfold more slowly in a more mature piece of work. And just as quickly, everything gets wrapped up in a neat bow at the end.
But this is a picture aimed at a younger, attention-deficient, instant-gratification-demanding generation. It offers a message that should resonate with a growing population of young misfits—hell, old misfits, too. In this age of assholes denying basic rights to all human beings, it's also quite touching to watch the friendship develop between straight Shane and fabulous Vincent. But a warning to those who noticed Cowboys & Angels on the roster of recent gay and lesbian film festivals: this flick centers mostly on the straight man.
As clichd as parts of the story play, they actually run parallel to the real life of writer/director David Gleeson, making his feature debut. (He won the best drama screenplay award for Cowboys & Angelsat April's Newport Beach Film Festival). Gleeson was born in Limerick; he demonstrated an artistic flair at a young age; and like one of the characters in Cowboys & Angels, he left the Emerald Isle for the Big Apple.
Unfortunately, I don't know enough about Gleeson to know if the scenes of drug abuse, hit-and-run driving and unwanted same-sex seduction were also plucked from his own experiences.
Despite his short tenure in the biz, Gleeson obviously heeded the advice of the masters and cast an actor you care enough about from the first frame to the last that you're willing to forgive the film its flaws.
Cowboys & Angels was written and directed by David Gleeson; produced by Nathalie Lichtenthaeler, James Flynn, Chris Chrisafis and Peter Stockhaus; and stars Michael Legge, Allen Leech and Amy Shiels. Now playing at Edwards University, Irvine.
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