Texas Rangers

As old-fashioned shoot-’em-up Westerns go, “Texas Rangers” is not bad. Aside from being in color and starring James Van Der Beek, it is hardly different at from the dusty old flicks that starred the likes of John Wayne or Lee Marvin. No one in “Texas Rangers” ever actually says, “This town ain’t big enough for the two of us,” but you can tell they want to.

James Van Der Beek plays Lincoln Rogers Dunnison, an educated Philadelphia transplant whose family is killed by cattle rustlers in 1875, prompting him to join the newly re-formed Texas Rangers. The Rangers are led by Leander McNelly (Dylan McDermott), a former preacher who suffered trauma in the Civil War and is now hell-bent on punishing the wicked before he dies. Dunnison becomes McNelly’s right-hand man, urging moderation against McNelly’s kill-them-all-let-God-sort-them-out brand of justice.

I just realized I made the emotional conflicts in the movie sound more interesting than they actually are. Sorry about that. In truth, those elements are in place, but the film doesn’t do much with them. Why develop the Flawed Hero theme when it’s so much easier to put white hats on the good guys, black hats on the bad guys, and let the Laws of Westerns take effect?

The bad guy here is King Fisher (Alfred Molina), a weaselly man whose band of marauders pillages the Texas frontier and makes shady deals with Mexico. At one point, they happen upon a traveling Mexican circus — which consists of one tiger — and force a woman to juggle in order to save her own life. If she drops the balls, it’s curtains for her!

Now I have committed the opposite mistake. I made that juggling thing sound LESS stupid than it is in the movie. Again, I apologize.

There’s a racist Ranger whose life gets saved by a black guy. Also in accordance with tradition, there is a woman who appears half-way through the movie whom all the guys lust after. She is played by Rachael Leigh Cook, just so you know.

I suppose I should also mention Ashton Kutcher, who plays Dunnison’s buddy George Durham. Except I don’t know what to say about him, because I don’t know what purpose he serves in the movie. He just hangs around acting “Dude, Where’s My Car?”-ish, while James Van Der Beek stands around looking all Van Der Beeky. If you had a contest to name the two male celebrities least-suited to appearing in a Western, the only ones who would beat Van Der Beek and Kutcher would be Jim J. Bullock and Flipper.

Bad casting aside, there’s something strange about this film that wins you over after a while. The plot is steady without being overly predictable, and I confess to actually being surprised by it once or twice. It’s an unobtrusive movie, one that does its thing with enthusiasm and doesn’t annoy you too much in the process. It won’t win any prizes, but for fans of old-time Westerns, it may be a pleasant-enough diversion.

C+ (; PG-13, a few mild profanities and a lot of gunfire.)