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.
Extreme Ops should be a James Bond movie. Then at least we'd expect the ridiculous plot--plus we'd see some sex. Alas the film takes itself too seriously and those wacky opportunities are simply missed. As it stands a crew of commercial filmmakers--director Ian (Rufus Sewell) producer Jeffrey (Rupert Graves) coordinator Mark (Heino Ferch) and cameraman Will (Devon Sawa)--known for going that extra mile to get extreme action shots are hired to shoot a commercial for a Japanese digital video camera. Their idea is to take three skiers to the Austrian Karawanken Range bordering Yugoslavia and have them outrun an avalanche. No sweat. Up for the task are Chloe (Bridgette Wilson-Sampras) a downhill gold medal winner; wild-child snowboarder Kittie (Jana Pallaske); and all-around adrenaline junkie Silo (Joe Absolom). They make it to Austria and shack up in an unfinished resort nestled in the mountains (you were expecting a warm chalet?) where a band of Serbian terrorists led by war criminal Pavle (Klaus Lowitsch) has also happened to make its base camp. Seems this group of not-so-happy campers has a master plan involving world destruction which the hapless filmmakers uncover. Darn the luck. It's going to take some fancy-schmancy stunts to foil these bad guys--but our motley crew of extremists is up to the task.
This is one of those times you wonder what initially convinced good actors such as Rufus Sewell (A Knight's Tale) and Rupert Graves (The Madness of King George) to make this film. Maybe they thought they could improve it along the way. Or maybe the extreme stunts tempted them to have a little fun in the Austrian Alps. Regardless only Sewell rises above the mire every once in a while; the rest of the cast wallows in it. Newcomers Pallaske and Absolom have very limited range and do better when they simply stand around getting snow in their hair while Sawa (Slackers) seems sorely out of place. Wilson-Sampras has some potential as an actress (her performance breaking up with Matthew McConaughey on their wedding day in The Wedding Planner comes to mind) but an awful script and a bunch of second-rate actors bring her down. The only exceptions are her scenes with Sewell. As for the villains it seems Hollywood has a new bad guy of choice. It used to be the Russians but these Serbs are mighty vicious and suitably over the top. It's their job to make the heroes look good and they do it adequately.
Putting aside a weak plot and bad acting the point to this movie would be the opportunity to see some amazing stunts right? Crazy snowboarders outrunning avalanches attack dogs and evil terrorists all while leaping off snow-capped cliffs and outmaneuvering other perilous terrain. This can make a movie worthwhile if done correctly but sadly that is not the case with Extreme Ops. Director Christian Duguay (The Art of War) manages to mess up even this simple task. The first few shots of the skiers shooting down the hill with the snow tumbling after them are pretty spectacular yet after about the eighth time you see this same shot it starts to get a little boring. On top of that there are some extraordinarily bad blue-screen moments when it's clear the actors are standing in front of a fake background. In this CGI age audiences have high expectations and are very unforgiving of shoddy filmmaking. The worst of the movie's offenses however happens in the editing room. With all the good guys bad guys skiing helicopters and running through snow you're never quite sure who's who or what's what.
November 15, 2002 4:05am EST
Sascha Petrosevitch (Steven Seagal) is an undercover FBI agent posing as an international car thief. When Sascha and his partner in crime Nick Frazier (Ja Rule) get busted by the Feds Sascha agrees to serve time at the newly refurbished Alcatraz in order to keep his cover. The prison happens to house a criminal by the name of Lester (Bruce Weitz) who robbed an armored vehicle of some $200 million worth of gold that has never been recovered. A group of mercenaries calling themselves "the 49ers" decide it would be a good idea to break into the prison and somehow force Lester to divulge the booty's whereabouts. When their plan backfires they begin taking hostages--including Justice June McPherson (Linda Thorson). To save the day Sascha must rally the inmates against the commando force. Half Past Dead is a stock actioner complete with lame story flashy stunts and lots of folks pointing guns at one another. It is also a typical Seagal pic so if you have ever watched any--including the Under Siege movies--you've seen this one too.
Once again Seagal (Exit Wounds) is the archetypal defender but instead of portraying a brooding silent hero he simply comes across as bored. Or maybe this is just Seagal's rendition of what happens to a man after he flatlines for 22 minutes. Seagal's partner in crime Nick is played by rapper-turned-actor Ja Rule (The Fast and the Furious). The two actors barely have any chemistry and the "brotherly" relationship they talk about incessantly never comes through on screen. Morris Chestnut (Like Mike) plays Donny aka 49er One the leader of the mercenaries. It was a refreshing change to see Chestnut--who has played nice-guy roles in a throng of romantic comedies such as The Brothers Two Can Play That Game and The Best Man--portraying a sociopath with absolutely no redeeming qualities. He does it charmingly well. As Chestnut's fellow commando 49er Six Nia Peeples manages to create a character that despite her tiny stature is convincingly intimidating. Tony Plana is exceptional as the bad-ass prison warden El Fuego; it's too bad his character has such a small role in the film.
With this movie actor/screenwriter Don Michael Paul who appeared in a bevy of little-known films in the late '80s and early 90's makes his directorial debut. It's obvious that Paul put more focus and energy into the film's visuals than into the story. Half Past Dead's new Alcatraz setting is ultra slick complete with state-of-the-art execution chambers yet still retains the dark and gritty feel that a prison should. But while Paul has chosen all the "right" ingredients to build an action flick he hasn't put enough thought into the story's logistics. In one scene for example Seagal parachutes out of a helicopter that's only about 200 feet above sea level. It's hard to buy into a stunt that is so far from plausible. Furthermore the proliferation of buddy action movies has simply grown tiresome. Like its many predecessors Half Past Dead tries to draw laughs and create chemistry by pairing two opposite characters and while that worked for Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker in Rush Hour it fails miserably between Seagal and Ja Rule. Viewers will only cringe when Nick tries to teach Sascha the Ebonics version of all right ("aight").