On the surface, the motion pictures Cowboys & Angels and D.E.B.S. seem to have little in common. Cowboys & Angels, the 2003 feature debut by Irish filmmaker David Gleeson, is a small, low-budget coming-of-age film while D.E.B.S., written, directed and edited by Angela Robinson, is a flashy comedy with slick production styles. Surprisingly, both films deal with the homosexuality of the main characters in very similar fashions.
Cowboys tells the story of Shane, an insecure young man desperately in search of identity, friends and somewhere to fit in. The film follows Shane's journey to self-awareness through such misadventures as falling in with a neighborhood drug dealer, experiencing the death of a close co-worker and getting a full image and wardrobe makeover by his roommate, a confident free-spirited young man named Vincent.
The film itself seems to be in search of a true identity, and travels from comedic fumbling coming-of-age moments to gritty slice-of-life dramatic peaks. Its attempts to wring the most possible dramatic situations out of each and every plot twist feel forced and phony. It's too bad that writer/director Gleeson felt the need to make the film so incident heavy, as the real strength of the film lies in the relationship between Shane and Vincent and would have been much improved had it focused more on these characters.
Played by Michael Legge and Allen Leech respectively, Shane and Vincent are both charming and likable throughout the film-it is disappointing that such a contrived plot is wasted on them. One area in which the film admirably succeeds is the way it handles the different lifestyles of each character. Shane, who is straight, rather bluntly asks Vincent if he is gay shortly after they have been introduced and Vincent, just as bluntly replies that he is. Gleeson wisely avoids forcing this particular issue and never allows the differences in their sexuality to interfere in their growing friendship. We end up witnessing a very pure, very believable, and rather touching relationship between a straight man and a gay man.
On the other hand, a homosexual relationship is much more the focus of the story in D.E.B.S. The title refers to a squad of four mini-skirt-clad women currently being trained in the art of espionage. The basic thrust of the story finds our four heroines pitted against super villain Lucy Diamond, an international terrorist and jewel thief. As the D.E.B.S. close in on Diamond, Amy, the shining star of the organization, finds herself falling in love with the villain, even though Amy is certain that she herself is not gay.
As in Cowboys, it is refreshing to see a film depicting a homosexual relationship where the actual homosexuality is not the main focus. Granted, D.E.B.S. does tend to make a bigger deal out of the homosexuality, mainly in humorous asides such as Amy's ex-boyfriend telling her the whole lesbian thing is "kind of hot," but the major conflict in the relationship is not that it is of a lesbian nature, but that it is between a spy and an arch-villain.
Since D.E.B.S. is a spoof of super spies and super villains, it too has a plot that seems rather contrived and farfetched, an asset in the case of this film. Overall, D.E.B.S. is quite enjoyable, thanks to its good-natured sense of humor and solid supporting cast (especially Jimmi Simpson as Diamond's main henchman), but the best aspect is its attitude towards the central love story. Instead of exploiting the lesbianism or making it the joke itself, we are instead presented with a surprisingly sweet, seemingly genuine love between two women. It doesn't hurt that Sara Foster, as Amy, and Jordana Brewster, as Lucy Diamond, have an undeniable chemistry between them.
While it may seem strange to even compare Cowboys & Angels, a low-key coming-of-age story, to the fast and flashy D.E.B.S., both films deal with homosexuality admirably. It's a nice surprise to see films that treat homosexual relationships as relationships first and homosexual issues second, while creating characters who happen to be homosexual as opposed to merely gay caricatures. Perhaps most encouraging of all is to note the similarities in these two entirely different films, and to realize that maybe cinema itself is finally starting to revel in being out of the celluloid closet.