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.
The record of rappers becoming actors is decidedly mixed. Eminem drew praise for his semi-autobiographical turn in 8 Mile while his Detroit neighbor Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson was largely panned for his work in his 2005 biopic Get Rich or Die Tryin’. Ice Cube and Ice T have both earned steady paychecks and occasional acclaim on the big and small screens while the less-esteemed member of the Brothers Ice Vanilla never quite recovered from 1991‘s disastrous Cool as Ice.
Two of the latest hip-hoppers to attempt the leap Chris Brown and Tip “T.I.” Harris can both be seen in the heist thriller Takers. They also served as producers on the film and in that regard they deserve credit for helping assemble a cast that quite effectively lowers the bar for their acting work. In an ensemble that includes the likes of Paul Walker and Hayden Christensen they needn’t worry about issuing Oscar-worthy performances. As long as they’re semi-ambulatory they stand a fairly good chance of keeping pace with Takers’ slow-moving herd.
The film’s plot concerns a swaggering crew of bank robbers whose sophisticated methods have enabled them to pull off a number of high-stakes heists with nary a hitch. Their strict adherence to a one-job-per-year schedule is enough to fund a luxurious lifestyle in which they freely indulge their tastes for fancy cars tailored suits single-malt scotch and big cigars (No King Cobra and Swisher Sweets for these classy gents. No siree.) All of which is fastidiously depicted by director John Luessenhop (Lockdown) whose aesthetic sensibility in Takers varies between hip-hop video and Maker’s Mark ad.
And they’re decent civic-minded folks too: Jake (Michael Ealy) is eager to leave the game and settle down with his fiance (Zoe Saldana) the proprietor of a trendy downtown L.A. cocktail lounge; his brother Jesse (Brown) wants to ensure their elderly father is taken care of upon his release from prison; proper English chap Gordon (Idris Elba the lone standout) faithfully shepherds his junkie sister through rehab; John’s (Walker) moral compass won’t allow for shooting cops or unarmed civilians; and A.J. (Christensen) is a talented pianist whose bowler hat and hoarse hepcat diction are I can only assume indicative of a deep appreciation for jazz-age style.
But for all the gang’s obvious intelligence their judgment of character is appallingly poor. When a shady former associate named Ghost (T.I. — which after watching the film I now realize stands for "Totally Incoherent") comes to them with a suspiciously lucrative new opportunity he claims to have hatched during a recent jail stint the fellas need all of a nanosecond to sign on to the dubious scheme forsaking all of the rules that made them successful. Why they’d place their livelihoods on the line for an ex-con who can’t be bothered to raise his eyelids above half-mast or pronounce consonants appearing at the end of words like “love” (which his lazy twang renders “luh”) is beyond me but it’s the first of several missteps that open the door for Detective Jack Welles (Matt Dillon) an old-school cop who refuses allow a crumbling marriage chronic sleep deprivation or established caselaw involving warrants and Miranda rights to deter him in his dogged pursuit of justice.
Takers features a smattering of the expected twists and turns most of which are sufficiently telegraphed by Luessenhop’s direction which downshifts to slow-motion at the advent of every action sequence and the film’s predictable story arc. What is surprising about the film is its lack of verve an absolute must for a heist flick and something which even the worst of the Ocean’s films boasted. For all of its bullets and bling Takers all too often feels as lethargic as its co-producer and co-star T.I. looks. (Although to be fair Dillon appears at times to be sleep-walking as well.)
A “bedtime story” is a fairly succinct way to describe Lady. Of course a bedtime story being told by M. Night Shyamalan can go into any number of weird and wild directions. The writer/director says the idea for Lady was based on a story he’d told his kids which began with “Did you know that someone lives under our pool?” and revolves around Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) a lowly superintendent for an apartment building who inadvertently finds Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) a mysterious nymph-like “narf ” living in the pool. She’s there to complete a task and now that it’s done she needs to go home back to the Blue World. But that’s easier said than done. She only has a small window of opportunity and apparently there’s a ferocious beast called a “scrunt” lurking in the grass around the pool waiting to kill her if she tries to leave. Now Cleveland and a few of the other tenants—who find themselves intricately tied to Story’s plight—must help her escape to freedom. Thank god for Sideways. Without it Giamatti would have gone on playing under the radar without the recognition—and juicier parts—he deserves. He is truly a wonder as Cleveland a sad little man with a stutter who is quietly trying to hide from a tragic past. It’s only when Story comes into his life does he face his personal tragedy and learn to live again. Howard on the other hand who wowed most of us with her stunning performance in The Village doesn’t have nearly as much to work with as the pale water nymph. The mystical character is fairly one note—befuddled and cheerless. But the rest of the apartment tenants shine: Jeffrey Wright (Syriana) as a single dad who has a penchant for crossword puzzles; Freddy Rodriguez (HBO’s Six Feet Under) as a weight builder who only lifts weights on one side of his body; Bob Balaban (A Mighty Wind) as a pompous film critic (and as a critic I’m not at all offended when he gets his comeuppances); Cindy Cheung as a Korean college student who is key in telling the epic bedtime story; Sarita Choudhury (She Hate Me) as a quippy young woman looking for her mission in life and Shyamalan himself as her brother the person Story is meant to inspire to write something extraordinary. There’s never a dull moment with this crew around. In a way M. Night Shyamalan has become his own worst enemy having to live up to this reputation as a master of suspense and surprise twists. His last effort The Village left many of his fans feeling unsatisfied—and unfortunately he may alienate more with Lady in the Water. But the fact of the matter is he is still one of Hollywood's more brilliant minds on par with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman for originality who has an innate talent for crafting ingenious stories filled with genuine human emotions. So maybe this time around he’s made a movie more for those most ardent of his fans who simply revel in the way his mind works no matter how incomprehensible and frivolous it may seem. So what? The diehards might feel compelled to defend Shyamalan’s choices with Lady—how he has come up with an entire universe where things like “scrunts” and the “Tartutic” (simian-like creatures who form an invincible force that maintains law and order in the Blue World) and “Madam Narfs” interact with humans in the real world. If the story actually took place in the Blue World then maybe it’d be easier to swallow. But that’s sort of the genius of Shyamalan. It’s as if with Lady in the Water he’s crafted a child-like movie for those adults who remember being told wildly creative bedtime stories who then in turn tell the stories to their kids.