Actor Cliff Robertson dove headfirst into this vanity piece about a middle-aged rodeo cowboy trying to restart his career after a stretch in prison: In addition to playing the leading role, Robertson directed, produced, and co-wrote the overly meticulous character study. It’s tempting to say ego led Robertson to use every scrap of film he shot, since the film drags terribly at 112 minutes, but it’s just as likely he was trying to create a stylistic alternative to standard Hollywood artifice. To his credit, J.W. Coop is consistently authentic and sincere. Unfortunately, it’s not consistently entertaining.
The picture begins when J.W. (Robertson) leaves prison and returns home to check in on his senile mother (Geraldine Page). Seeing only desperation in his hometown, he hits the rodeo circuit, and along the way gets involved with a pretty young hippie, Bean (Cristina Ferrare). He also has inconsequential adventures like a run-in with a cop who wants to cite J.W. for pollution, and a barroom brawl in which he defends a black friend against racist hoodlums. The goal of these episodes seems to be defining Coop as an honorable iconoclast so we’ll perceive his eventual showbiz excesses as tragic, because once J.W. gets back into the swing of bronc riding, he ascends the ranks until his only real competition is a superstar cowboy who flies his own private plane from one rodeo to the next. The picture asks how much J.W. is willing to risk to become the top guy on the circuit.
Utilizing documentary-style footage and featuring many real-life figures from the rodeo world in supporting roles, J.W. Coop offers a believable look at a colorful subculture, and some of the bronc-busting action is intense, particularly the spectacular ride that a stunt man takes in the finale. However, the story holding this material together isn’t strong, and neither, frankly, is Robertson’s performance.
The rare actor who chose to underplay once becoming his own director, Robertson is so soft-spoken and still throughout J.W. Coop that he generates nearly undetectable energy, if any. (Having said that, his rural accent and mannerisms are completely believable.) Leading lady Ferrare is mostly decorative, while Fitzgerald and durable character actor R.G. Armstrong—easily the picture’s best performers—don’t get enough screen time to compensate for Robertson’s sleepiness. As a result of its many weaknesses, J.W. Coop doesn’t make much of an impression, even though it’s on many levels tough and admirable.
J.W. Coop: FUNKY