Before it was released to great acclaim and armloads of Oscars in 1990, Kevin Costner's directorial debut Dances With Wolves was widely derided in the press as "Kevin's Gate," the sort of expensive vanity project that financiers might write off as a sacrifice at the altar of stardom. Right on the heels of the Waterworld debacle, the expected opus finally arrived in Costner's 1997 follow-up The Postman, a bloated science-fiction epic that squandered any remaining goodwill from Dances, and then some. After Costner's recent turns in dreck like Dragonfly and 3000 Miles To Graceland, the vultures are certain to circle around Open Range, a hopelessly unfashionable return to the Old West. Save for a brutal climactic gunfight and a few sobering reflections on violence, the film could have been made half a century ago, well before revisionist Westerns such as The Wild Bunch and McCabe And Mrs. Miller brought an air of self-consciousness to the genre by questioning its assumptions. At first, Costner's weakness for languor finds him swimming in the scenery, so entranced by the wide-open prairies and sun-dappled streams that he neglects to give his mule of a story a swift kick. Yet once all the classic elements fall into placeranchers and free grazers, aging cowboys and corrupt lawmen, a handsome woman in her autumn yearsOpen Range possesses a square, anachronistic charm that's deeply satisfying, brushing a layer of dust off a sturdy old tale of revenge and romance. Both supremely relaxed and confident as longtime partners in a dying trade, Costner and Robert Duvall play nomadic cattle herders who roam the countryside in the 1880s. As settlers swallow up more and more land, these "free grazers" are doomed to run into conflict with local ranchers. When one ruthless rancher (Michael Gambon) ambushes their hired hands, killing one (Abraham Benrubi) and leaving another (Diego Luna) for dead, Costner and Duvall head into the corrupt town thirsting for revenge. Most of the citizens are too frightened to resist Gambon's stranglehold over the town, but the pair gets help from local doctor Dean McDermott and his sister Annette Bening, a lonely old maid with designs on Costner. Open Range treads lightly into Unforgiven territory by giving Costner a dark and bloody past, but mostly it's just a good yarn, with attractive picture-postcard vistas and an agreeable strain of light humor. If anything, Costner plays it too safe, perhaps hoping that a straight-ahead genre picture, featuring no less a stabilizing presence than Duvall, could put his directorial career back on solid ground. Yet in light of his spiraling reputation, the film seems oddly courageous: A weaker man would have never gotten back on the horse.