As with seemingly every other tentpole release to hit the multiplex this summer the action thriller Cowboys & Aliens is based on a comic book – albeit a lesser-known one. It’s directed by Jon Favreau whose previous comic-book adaptations Iron Man and Iron Man 2 proved how much better those films can be when they’re grounded in character. Unfortunately his latest effort is grounded not in character but a hook an alt-history scenario best expressed in the language of the average twelve-year-old: “Like wouldn’t it be awesome if like a bunch of 1870s cowboys had to fight a bunch of crazy aliens with exoskeletons and spaceships and super-advanced weapons?”
Like perhaps. The hook was compelling enough to get someone to pony up a reported $160 million to find out and the result is a film in which the western and science-fiction genres don’t so much blend as violently collide. After the wreckage is cleared both emerge worse for wear.
Daniel Craig stars as Jake Lonergan a stranger who awakens in the New Mexico Territory with a case of amnesia a wound in his side and a strange contraption strapped to his wrist. After dispatching a trio of bandits with Bourne-like efficiency he rides to the nearby town of Absolution where he stumbles on what appears to be an elaborate Western Iconography exhibit presented by the local historical preservation society. There’s the well-meaning town Sheriff Taggart (Keith Carradine) struggling to enforce order amidst lawlessness; the greedy rancher Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) who really runs things; his debaucherous cowardly son Percy (Paul Dano); the timid saloonkeeper Doc (Sam Rockwell) who’s going to stand up for himself one of these days; the humble preacher Meacham (Clancy Brown) dispensing homespun spiritual advice; et al.
Jake of course has his own part to play – the fugitive train-robber – as we discover when his face shows up on a wanted poster and a sneering Dolarhyde fingers him for the theft of his gold. The only character who doesn’t quite conform to type is Ella (Olivia Wilde) who as neither a prostitute nor some man’s wife – the traditional female occupations in westerns – immediately arouses suspicion.
Jake is arrested and ordered to stand trial in Federal court but before he can be shipped off a squadron of alien planes appears in the sky besieging Absolution and making off with several of its terrified citizenry. In the course of the melee Jake’s wrist contraption wherever it came from reveals itself to be quite useful in defense against the alien invaders. Thrown by circumstances into an uneasy alliance with Dolarhyde he helps organize a posse to counter the otherworldly threat – and bring back the abductees if possible.
Cowboys & Aliens has many of the ingredients of a solid summer blockbuster but none in sufficient amounts to rate in a summer season crowded with bigger-budget (and better-crafted) spectacle. For a film with five credited screenwriters Cowboys & Aliens’ script is sorely lacking for verve or imagination. And what happened to the Favreau of Iron Man? The playful cheekiness that made those films so much fun is all but absent in this film which takes itself much more seriously than any film called Cowboys & Aliens has a right to. Dude you’ve got men on horses with six-shooters battling laser-powered alien crab people. Lighten up.
Craig certainly looks the part of the western anti-hero – his only rival in the area of rugged handsomeness is Viggo Mortensen – but his character is reduced to little more than an angry glare. And Wilde the poor girl is burdened with loads of clunky exposition. The two show promising glimpses of a romantic spark but their relationship remains woefully underdeveloped. Faring far better is Ford who gets not only the bulk of the film’s choicest lines but also its only touching subplot in which his character’s adopted Indian son played by Adam Beach quietly coaxes the humanity out of the grizzled old man.
Rock Star's origins lie in the rise to fame of Tim "Ripper" Owens who supplanted Judas Priest singer Rob Halford after toiling in a tribute band to the British metal mavens. Not that Owens is too happy with Rock Star. Director Stephen Herek and writer John Stockwell present Wahlberg's Chris Cole as a hired hand willing to live out someone else's dream. It's also a cliched cautionary tale about fame and fortune. In his cover band Cole lives to bang out perfect renditions of the loud and proud heavy metal fashioned by the Def Leppard-ish Steel Dragon. Instant fame arrives when Steel Dragon hires Cole to replace their departed singer. Cue the barrage of women illicit drugs and wrecked hotel rooms followed by the exit of Cole's long-suffering girlfriend Emily (Jennifer Aniston). He must now decide between life in the fast lane or Emily and his growing desire to be taken seriously.
How much of a stretch is it for the former rapper known as Marky Mark to portray a wide-eyed dreamer who succumbs to sex drugs and heavy metal? He did it once as Boogie Nights' porn star and aspiring rocker. He has the abs the flowing mane of hair the well-packaged leather pants the mascara and eyeliner the high shriek and the stage presence to make you believe that he can rock day and night with Motley Crue. He also displays an innocence that's ripe for corruption. Aniston's job is to ensure that Walhberg remains unaffected by fame. There's a steeliness and determination in Aniston that she's never displayed before. Yet her beauty undermines her. She's the kind of girl Wahlberg could only get when famous not while rocking in obscurity. Of the band only road manager Timothy Spall displays any wit or personality. He's a hoot as a grizzled veteran with plenty of sage advice to dispense.
Herek must have seen every episode of VH1's Behind the Music. Like the subjects of that series Rock Star rocks hard parties harder and then crashes louder than any Judas Priest anthem. He even bookends Rock Star with Walhberg reflecting on his wild ways. There are the requisite overproduced rock concerts TV interviews orgies drug binges and recording studio screaming fits. Just what you would expect from Reagan-era rockers. Herek handles all this with panache--Rock Star is as fast glossy and entertaining as any MTV video--but it burns out suddenly and unsatisfactorily. It just isn't clear whether Herek and Stockwell are out to honor condemn or satirize rock's excesses. Also just like last year's Almost Famous Rock Star's fictional band barely seems part of the proceedings. You never get a true sense of the band's mechanics or of what made them metal gods to begin with.