10/03/2011 08:48 am ET | Updated Dec 03, 2011

Movie Review: Blackthorn

The cowboy - rugged, stoic and resourceful - will always be a cinematic archetype, though the western has all but disappeared as a commercially popular genre.

For a grittily entertaining and thoughtful example of just how good a western can be, look no further than Mateo Gil's accomplished Blackthorn, an outlaw tale that is at once exciting and elegiac, elegant and earthy.

Part of that has to do with Gil's vision, fleshed out by the ravishing Bolivian locations where he filmed. But a good deal also has to do with the central performance - as good as he's ever been - by Sam Shepard, one of our greatest playwrights who started out (and probably still remains) a cowboy at heart.

It's giving nothing away to say that James Blackthorn, the character Shepard plays, is in fact the aging Butch Cassidy. It's 1928, 20 years after Cassidy and his pal, the Sundance Kid, were supposedly killed in a shoot-out with the Bolivian army. In this version written by Miguel Barros, Butch escaped with his life and has been living a quiet life, breeding horses and keeping to himself on a remote Bolivian ranch.

Having received news of the death of Etta Place in San Francisco, he decides to cash in and head back to the U.S. to meet the son she left behind - perhaps Sundance's, perhaps his. As he says at one point, there are only two significant events in a man's life: when he leaves home and when he goes back. Everything else is just the middle.

His plan is disrupted, however, when, after selling a string of ponies and withdrawing his savings from a bank, he's ambushed on his way back to his ranch by a man trying to steal his horse. His horse gets away, but Butch captures the bandit, a Spanish engineer named Eduardo Apodaca (Eduardo Noriega), who persuades Butch not to kill him by promising to share a fortune he has hidden in a silver mine not far away.

Apodaca's story is that he stole the money from one of the country's biggest mine owners. He's on the run from the rich man's posse; his own horse died of exhaustion and the altitude; hence, his attempt to steal Cassidy's.

But, having secured the money in the mine, Butch finds himself in a familiar situation: on the run from a rather insistent group of men whose sole aim is to catch and kill him. In the process, he also runs up against an old foe: an aging Pinkerton agent named MacKinley (Stephen Rea) who once cornered Butch and Sundance.

Barros' central story is strong enough that it could stand alone. Shepard's rustic wisecracks are pungent and understated, full of bite and spice that catches you by surprise. With a full beard and stiff gait, he could be channeling Gabby Hayes by way of Jimmy Stewart.

This review continues on my website.