Let's get one thing out of the way immediately: "All the Pretty Horses," the Movie, is not the same thing as "All the Pretty Horses," the Book.

After all, no filmmaker — living or dead — would be able to translate author Cormac McCarthy's wonderfully colorful prose into celluloid, no matter the level of talent. So credit director/producer Billy Bob Thornton for having the smarts to stay away from McCarthy's specific words.

Yet, despite the film's attractive, talented cast and some of the most gorgeous cinematography and scenery seen on film this year, there's at least a faint odor of disappointment about this somewhat superficial Western.

For one thing, in the studio's mandate to trim it down to less than two hours — from the original three-hour-plus work print Thornton submitted — the film's rather natural rhythm and pacing have been destroyed by some bad editing cuts, as well as some questionable scene deletions (and inclusions).

As a result, the entire first hour seems like a series of pretty snapshots, rather than developed scenes. So credit the cast for making the whole thing nearly succeed in spite of the many problems.

And that certainly includes Matt Damon, who stars as John Grady Cole, a young Texan who heads to Mexico after his mother decides to sell the family ranch.

There, Cole and his best friend, Lacey Rawlins (Henry Thomas), hope to find employment as cowboys. They're joined by Jimmy Blevins (Lucas Black), a quick-to-temper teen who manages to get the three in some hot water along the way.

Consequently, the three decide to go their separate ways, though both Cole and Rawlins are fortunate enough to find employment at the ranch of Rocha (Ruben Blades), a wealthy landowner.

However, Cole also finds himself falling for Rocha's beautiful daughter, Alejandra (Penelope Cruz). And in spite of Rawlins' warnings, he goes ahead with that seemingly ill-fated romance, though it could spell doom for all involved.

Even with all the drastic quick cuts and shaky scene transitions, Thornton and screenwriter Ted Tally ("The Silence of the Lambs") have still made something very watchable, though the material feels more slight than it should.

A lot of credit should go to the actors. For example, the teaming of Damon and Cruz ignites all the right sparks, while Thomas (who's beginning to look a lot like Timothy Hutton) makes a fairly credible bid to steal the picture right out from under them with his impressive performance.

"All the Pretty Horses" is rated PG-13 for violence (gunfire and a prison knife fight), scattered profanity, brief gore, fleeting female partial nudity and an extremely brief sex scene. Running time: 117 minutes.

E-MAIL: jeff@desnews.com