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THE FATE that somehow transformed Clint Eastwood from hissing, vengeful yahoo into one of the great saviors of cinematic purity has to be one of the weirdest of modern times.

But there he is, and the evidence has been undeniable ever since "Tightrope" -- "Bird," "White Hunter, Black Heart" and now his impressive, laconic, revisionist western "Unforgiven."

It's gorgeously photographed by Jack Green, wryly funny and violent. It is a light version of the scabrous anti-heroic tone of John Huston's "The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean."

This is the Old West with pig slop, outhouses, male sadism, feminist rebellion and stupidity left in.

This is Clint as retired gunslinger. He remains sexually faithful (i.e., celibate) to the dead wife who "cured me of whiskey and wickedness." Once he straps on his gun again (to pick up a little cash by murdering two teen-age cowhands), his legend follows him around like a slobbering, flatulent, devoted old dog.

Sober, he has trouble hitting the broad side of a barn. When you first see him, in fact, pig offal is all over his face. For the entire movie, he has trouble just mounting his horse. It has moments that flirt with Eastwood the Absurdist (he and his old pal, played by Morgan Freeman, having horseback discussions of onanism).

If he had made it in 1970, he'd have been justifiably hailed as a visionary who had finally wrestled the frontier from the penny dreadfuls and returned it to its rightful owners: Mark Twain, Stephen Crane and Bret Harte.

Looking at it now, it has the studied self-consciousness and occasional brilliance of a critic's movie -- a movie deliberately made to feed the cinematic notions of a sophisticated jury at Cannes and all those critics who learned their values in the film culture explosion of the '60s and early '70s -- that "film era" in which the audience's intellectual consciousness of film, incredibly, grew at the same rate that movies like "M*A*S*H," "The Wild Bunch," "The Godfather" and "Five Easy Pieces" were released.

In 1992, revisionism is old hat. Nobody believes in the ethic of the old John Ford westerns anymore, which is precisely what makes them wonderful and eternally fresh. They are as much legends as the history they celebrate.

Putting an anti-"Shane" on screen isn't exactly being au courant.

In fact, what's needed now is a new version of Ford's western romanticism. That's what "Dances With Wolves" was all about. Kevin Costner may have had feathers in his head (in the classic bon mot from Pauline Kael), but he managed to concoct a new, viable and contemporary western romanticism.

"Unforgiven" is dedicated to Eastwood's old directors (and mentors) Sergio Leone and Don Siegel. Compared to any Leone western at all, or Siegel's "The Beguiled," the anti-mythology of "Unforgiven" is more opportunism than anything else.

To understand Eastwood, you have to chuck Dirty Harry and everything else you think you know about him into the incinerator. You have to think of him as the product of '50s coastal coffeehouses, with the same lazily Bohemian values and a cultural veneer that, for all its hardness, goes only two inches deep. (It's a commitment to cultural life as an idea, not reality. In other words, it's a social attitude, a pose, just the sort that would be struck for effect by a struggling young Hollywood actor and maintained for a lifetime when nothing else arrives between his ears to take its place.)

He has everything -- everything -- it takes to join the ranks of the truly great filmmakers, except for one thing: brains.

He has brilliant narrative technique (on display all through "Unforgiven") and superb instincts. He even knows how to photograph Clint Eastwood, the actor, making sure there are plenty of shadows in the hollows of his face and squinty-eyed close-ups (his old rediscoverer Leone said that he always treated Eastwood as a piece of movable sculpture).

It's a pity that he doesn't have better ideas of what to do -- or why.

So here we are with this would-be great western called "Unforgiven."

It isn't great by any means. It's pretty good, though.

And that's because he has stocked the movie with first-rate actors able to do whatever is required of them -- stunning turns in the case of Gene Hackman (as a tough, sadistic sheriff) and Richard Harris (as a flamboyant mercenary gunslinger named English Bob) and solid support in the case of the redoubtable Morgan Freeman (as Eastwood's old roistering pal).

The script by David Webb Peoples ("Leviathan") has been kicking around for years. Some of it sounds like the subtitles to an old Sergio Leone movie. Most of it, though, has a certain minimalist wryness about it, as when Eastwood turns to his buddy from the old days and says: "You remember that drover I shot in the mouth? (Long pause.) And the teeth came out of the back of his head? (Longer pause.) I think about him now and then."

Or when Hackman, as the vicious sheriff, explains his Western journeys to a dime novelist, he says at one point: "I even thought I was dead. I found out I was in Nebraska."

The plot is set in motion when the prostitutes in Big Whiskey, Wyo., get together after one of them is slashed by a mean and poorly endowed cowboy and object to the local sheriff's idiotically sexist resolution of the problem (which, in effect, trades horses for whores).

Vengeances and countervengeances are set in motion -- all surrounded by a small prologue and epilogue with the flavor of 19th century literature.

Let other critics make big claims for "Unforgiven" if they like. I prefer to think of this as Clint's way of taking us for a little ride in some beautiful landscapes and saying:

"Remember westerns? (Pause). Where people slice and kill each other a lot? (Longer pause). I think about them now and then."

If only he had more equipment to do that thinking with.

Rating: *** 1/2
Revenge western starring Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman and Richard Harris. Directed by Eastwood.
Rated R, opening Friday in the Boulevard, Thruway, Market Arcade and Summit Mall theaters.

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