Dir: Billy Bob Thornton. US. 2000. 117 mins.

Prod co: Miramax Films, Columbia Pictures. US dist: Miramax Films. Int'l dist: Columbia TriStar. Exec prods: Sally Menke, Jonathan Gordon. Prods: Billy Bob Thornton, Robert Salerno. Scr: Ted Tally, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy. DoP: Barry Markowitz. Prod des: Clark Hunter. Ed: Sally Menke. Mus: Marty Stuart. Main cast: Matt Damon, Henry Thomas, Lucas Black, Penelope Cruz, Ruben Blades, Miriam Colon, Bruce Dern, Robert Patrick, Sam Shepard.

Cormac McCarthy's great poem of a novel gets a workmanlike screen treatment from director Billy Bob Thornton and screenwriter Ted Tally. Much has been written about Thornton's four hour cut which no doubt attempted to evoke McCarthy's dreamy epic prose rather than rushing through the story as this cut does, but for now this cut is all we have and it's disappointing.

Box office response will be brighter in the domestic market than internationally where the notion of the Old West is of little interest. But even domestically it will struggle to compete against top quality competition for adult ticket-buyers and mainstream holiday fare for all the family.

Set in 1949, the film tells of two young Texans - John Grady Cole (Damon) and Lacey Rawlins (Thomas) - who take off one day in search of the cowboy life south of the border. On the way there, they hook up with a teenage runaway Jimmy Blevins (Black) who leads them into trouble over a stolen horse. Leaving him behind, they find work breaking in wild horses at an old hacienda in Mexico and win the favour of its wealthy owner (Blades). But when Cole falls in love with the owner's daughter (Cruz), he enters a realm of danger which sees him and Rawlins fighting for their lives in a local prison.

Damon is appealing, if not entirely convincing, as the naive, good-hearted Cole, although both he and Thomas are upstaged by Lucas Black - in a possibly award-winning turn as the scoundrel Blevins. Straight-talking, full of bluster and doomed not to last long in the lawless west, Black makes a big impression in a small role.

Visually, the film is not as arresting as it could be. Thornton aims for the grandeur of a John Ford western but somehow never succeeds in conveying a coherent impression of what the west was like. Now The Searchers, on the other hand'