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.
Rescue Dawn is not a movie about war despite its Vietnam War setting or even so much a prisoner of war even though that’s what its hero is; rather it is a true story of a man’s will and ability to survive…anything. And with Werner Herzog behind the camera there couldn’t be a better marriage of director to subject matter. In 1966 German-born American Navy pilot Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) was excited to be deployed on a top-secret mission but the mission and the excitement were short-lived as his plane was shot down around the jungles of Laos. Before long Dengler is captured and tortured by the Laotian equivalent of Viet Cong whose leaders eventually lock him up in a makeshift cell. There he meets other POWs including Americans Gene (Jeremy Davies) and Duane (Steve Zahn) who have been held for upwards of two years. His newfound friends are emaciated and understandably delusional but Duane has managed to sustain a faint sense of reality. And when Dieter tells the group of his escape plan Duane is the only one to not ask questions. The escape is unexpectedly moved up and not without a hitch—not everyone will make it. Furthermore once they’re free from Viet Cong the men are held captive by the jungle. But Dieter’s madness winds up his greatest ally whereas others’ fatally slows them down. How does a contemporary big-time Hollywood actor transition financially psychologically professionally and linguistically from Batman to Grizzly Man (with a pit stop en route as a 19th century English magician)? Only Christian Bale could ever answer that. His filmography may register all over the radar but Bale is one of the most consistently great actors of his generation. And although Dawn might not have the Oscar pedigree or campaign power of a studio movie Bale is nomination worthy. A dialect virtuoso the way Benicio Del Toro is considered to be Bale—who’s British—is spot-on with the subtle nuances and fluctuating enunciation one might expect from a German-American or any foreign-born American. But more amazing is his mental transformation into Dieter a survivor who won’t take death for an answer. If Bale gets an Oscar nod so should Zahn a journeyman actor always associated with the comedic-sidekick role. It’s dramatic sidekick for Zahn this time and he wears it well from the beyond-scruffy beard on his face to the transparent hope on his face. Rounding out the best ensemble cast of 2007 is Davies (Saving Private Ryan) whose chameleonic career reads like Bale’s—not to mention the fact that Davies’ startling weight loss for this role eerily resembles Bale’s for The Machinist. Davies’ Gene although a somewhat minor character is the bony face of spirit-battered POWs; it’s scary and occasionally perversely comedic to watch his hallucinations unfold. Forty-plus years into his career legendary German writer-director Werner Herzog is as enigmatic as ever—and yet so predictable. It’s as if he remains somehow unaware that he keeps tackling the same stories about males who like him are obsessed; or in some abstractly Freudian way his filmmaking is the ultimate exercise in narcissism for exploring versions of himself. Whatever the explanation Herzog continues along this unwavering path in Dawn and his obsession is our gain. Herzog’s latest finds him just as smitten with his protagonist Dieter as with his de facto antagonist the jungle. For Dieter the writer in Herzog crafted someone who takes on different forms: a sponge to his environment an oxymoronic superhero of a human an entity that is everything but scared. And it’s highly fascinating to watch—thanks to an adept Christian Bale—Dieter go from a brash young man to a man of the wild to briefly a madman—but again never a scared or desperate man. That sort of attention to detail to a character could only come from a filmmaker who doesn’t make a movie unless the story is close to his heart. As a director Herzog pays as much respect to the jungle here as he did the bears in his Oscar-nominated documentary Grizzly Man. For even at Dawn’s most harrowing the jungle is soothing. Which is probably Werner Herzog’s dictum on nature in general.