The sad fact of classics is that very few of them are perfect. "Morning Bell" on Radiohead's Kid A? They coulda done without it. An American in Paris' 20-minute closing sequence? Too long, and not very fun. But the reason that they're all classics is that they breathe vitality and novelty decades after their release. That can't be said for some of the most critically acclaimed releases nowadays (e.g., Iron Man, though it is very enjoyable).
And goddamn, does Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid breathe. There's a sense of newness in the opening frame, a credit sequence that features a silent film about the eponymous characters. We then proceed to the semi-true-story of Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) and the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford), outlaws in the American West in the very early 20th century. But this isn't a Western. It dabbles in many genres, with hints of drama, comedy, action, maybe even farce. Cassidy and Kid rob a bunch of banks and trains in Bonnie & Clyde's vein, and given their good nature, we feel no guilt in laughing with them. That's more or less the whole story once you add in the part of them continually running from the law. Newman and Redford have always been pleasant actors, and their fleshy goodwill here makes them very enjoyable.
Director George Roy Hill is very ambitious and creative with William Goldman's quirky script -- the movie is saturated with montages, and rarely do they become tedious. In fact, their mere innovation carries us through them. There's one that features stills of the antiheroes gambling and dancing with their ladyfriend Etta Place (Katherine Ross). That's displayed in sepia tone -- a coloring scheme that also marks the film's distinctive opening action. Moments like these pull viewers straight through.
On top of these qualities, the whole experience is downright fun -- there's not much deep reading to be had for it, other than that greed will probably kill you in the long run. Most buddy films released nowadays -- Rush Hour, Starsky & Hutch -- feature compadres who can't get along. Cassidy and Kid do get along, and the rare moments when they don't, where inner tensions creep out, are funnier because of that. We like these guys, and when their lives in danger, we become squeamish. But even if we didn't like them, Hill is a talented enough director to make the adventure completely thrilling, and the climax is one of the most hair-raising in cinematic history.
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