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RANCH WORKS, FILM DOESN'T

Montana may carry the brand of author Larry McMurtry of Lonesome Dovefame, but nothing much clicks in this TNT drama about modern-day Rosebud County, Mont., and the challenges faced by ranchers. And that's a disappointment.

The problem is that the story is bogged down by the documentary nature of its past. McMurtry wrote this script in 1979 with the support of a national environmental foundation grant. From there, it moved to becoming a TV movie, and while Montana depicts a sad, real-life struggle, the drama lacks spit and fire.

Filmed on a 130,000-acre working ranch with the addition of a real Western bar (Stacey's Old Faithful Bar), this is not a stilted-looking production. No sets were used. But the editing is choppy, as the story line jumps from scene to scene like a bucking bronco. One minute, a couple is being shot at in a parking lot; the next minute, it's the day after, and we're watching another character mend a fence. This kind of inconsistency occurs more than once, and it's irritating.

The two leads are splendid, however. When Richard Crenna and Gena Rowlands get together, they make a fine feuding couple.

Crenna is Hoyce Guthrie, a crusty cowboy who's harbored a lifelong grudge against his wife, Bess (Rowlands). He inherited the land from her father, and Bess - in her stubborn, tough way - has never made him feel as if he has been good enough to fill her daddy's boots.

These "slaves to a grass patch," as their son, Clyde, (Justin Deas) decribes the feisty couple, finally must face the fact that the ranch no longer is providing them with a living. They must consider allowing welling and coal mining on their land.

Lea Thompson portrays Peg, their daughter, and her husband, Jimbo, is played by Darren Dalton. But the best supporting cast members are Elizabeth Berridge as Lavetta, a cocktail waitress, and Jim Bishop as her husband, Chester. They give the TV movie a true, gritty cowboy flavor.

- JANIS D. FROELICH Montana premieres Monday at 8 p.m. on TNT, with many repeats scheduled.

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