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Clint Eastwood as Mr. Nice Guy; Bronco Billy Starring Clint Eastwood, Sondra Locke, and Scatman Crothers and directed by Eastwood

It's the nicest surprise of the season: Clint Eastwood has suddenly become Mr. Nice Guy. Whatever happened to the brute specialist who played "Dirty Harry" and ran "The Gauntlet" and blasted his way through all those Italian westerns? His latest character, Bronco Bill McCoy, is a gentle and endearing hero -- an overgrown kid with a courageous belief in the power of positive dreaming.

The action takes place in a number of towns "west of Dodge City." The main character is owner and star of a Wild West Show that features a snake charmer and a lariat expert, as well as Bronco Billy's own trick riding and shooting. Bronco Billy loves his nomadic life and his fellow performers.

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Most of all he loves the kids, "the little cowboys and cowgirls," who are his biggest fans. They keep him going even when problems loom large -- problems like money, and the scarcity of female assistants willing to serve as targets for Billy's marksmanship act.

The story picks up momentum when Antoinette Lilly walks in. She's a rich and selfish woman whose husband has deserted her on their honeymoon. To befuddle him, the glamourous Miss Lilly decides to stay out of sight for a while, and so joins Bronco Billy's troupe. A little at a time, she is humanized by Billy and his band of happy outcasts. In different ways, all of them have gone through unhappy times in the past, but the Wild West Show has provided salvation by offering a place where childhood dreams and ambitions can come crazily true. While Miss Lilly's evil relatives scheme to gain control of her fortune, she gradually learns the real meanings of companionship and love.

"Bronco Billy" is a colorful comic strip of a movie. The main characters are larger than life -- eccentric, often troubled, but strong and resourceful down to their bones. By contrast, the minor characters seem smaller than life, and their distasteful ploys and personalities pale into insignificance alongside the importantm stuff like the smiling faces of the kids in the audience.

The movie thus incorporates its own message about the happiness that becomes possible when one embraces fantasy instead of rejecting it. "Bronco Billy" is itself an exhilarating blend of the real, the fantastic, and the sheerly cinematic.

"Bronco Billy" contains violence and implied sexual activity.m

For many years, it has been clear that Eastwood is much more interesting as a movie director than as a movie star. The trend continues in "Bronco Billy." If the film has a major flaw, it's that the tone is too consistent -- there are no real peaks or valleys. Also, occasional plot twists don't fit comfortably into the overall story.

But these are small quibbles with an uncommonly fetching picture that is splendidly acted by Sondra Locke as Miss Lilly, Sam Bottoms as a rope-twirler with a sad secret buried in his past, and Scatman Crothers -- in the best role of his film career -- as Bronco Billy's sidekick.

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Aside from a few nods to the sex lives of Billy and Lilly, and a bloodless fistfight scene, "Bronco Billy" is as tasteful as it is artful. This reflects eastwood's directorial restraint, and the cheerfully positive attitudes underlying the story. "Bronco Billy" is a gentle and life-affirming movie. Three cheers for Eastwood and his merry crew.

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