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.
Who is that masked man? Once upon a time he was Denny Colt (Gabriel Macht) a rookie cop killed in the line of duty. Now he’s The Spirit the perennially beleaguered and battered hero of Central City who can’t seem to ever die. No matter how brutal the licking he keeps on ticking. Such invincibility irks the Spirit’s nemesis The Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson) a megalomaniac who craves the same sort of power and would like nothing better than to crush Central City underfoot before setting his sights on complete world domination. Ever a ladies’ man even when teetering on the edge of death our hero is always surrounded by a bevy of beauties including childhood flame Sand Saref (Eva Mendes) now a crafty jewel thief; Ellen Dolan (Sarah Paulson) the foxy physician who carries a torch for him; Silken Floss (Scarlett Johansson) who gets her kicks aiding and abetting the Octopus; fast-talking rookie cop Morgenstern (Stana Katic) whose definitely got her eye on the Spirit; and Plaster of Paris (Paz Vega) whose loyalties like her outfit of choice can be rather skimpy. It’s a wonder the Spirit has any time to fight crime given how much time he’s making with the ladies. But who can blame him? In many ways and like so many comic-book movies story is distinctly a secondary consideration to mood atmosphere and attitude -- and The Spirit’s got ‘em all in spades. Channeling such film noir favorites as Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum Macht does a nice job as the gruff and tough Spirit occasionally pondering his fate when he’s not saving the day. As the Octopus Jackson doesn’t so much chew the scenery as make a seven-course meal out of it. Restraint is not in this film’s vocabulary. There are also plenty of opportunities for the film’s luscious ladies to strut their stuff which they do with good humor and even better outfits. Everyone on hand plays perfectly in sync with the spirit (no pun intended) of the proceedings including Dan Lauria as the crusty police commissioner and Louis Lombardi in multiple roles as the Octopus’ dim-witted henchmen all of whom have apparently been cloned from some low-IQ DNA. Look also for screenwriter/director Frank Miller as a cop who loses his head. In his first solo stint as director Frank Miller works overtime to capture the visual style of Eisner’s comic book and thanks to the advancements on CGI he has a massive palette in which to exercise that. The Spirit is eye candy -- at heart what comic book movie isn’t? -- but it makes no bones about it and no aspirations beyond it. It’s meant to be a cheeky diversion and on that score it makes the grade. The visual panache of the film is indeed impressive and there’s a refreshing sense of self-mockery to the proceedings. However those who prefer their comic-book heroes rendered in a more straightforward fashion may be taken aback by the sardonic approach. Here characters are just as apt to make a wisecrack or toss in a non-sequitur as deliver an important piece of expository dialogue. It will be interesting to see how the film performs at the box office if audiences embrace that approach and if indeed this becomes the foundation for the latest superhero franchise. Worse things have happened.
Chris Remi is a responsible mostly serious accountant with the nickname Goat of Fire. Tony is his younger brother a struggling actor who's popular with the ladies and goes by the nickname Smiling Fish. When their parents die the two must learn to adjust to life without Mom and Dad. Meanwhile Chris attempts to reconcile with his estranged wife before meeting an Italian beauty while Tony must decide what he wants when he meets his perfect match.
Chris and Tony played by real-life brothers Derick and Steven Martini respectively are relatively newcomers to the big screen and their acting doesn’t necessarily leave a lasting memory. They’re brothers playing brothers no real stretch there. The best performance by far is provided by Bill Henderson who plays Clive Winters -- a retired soundman from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Clive warms up to Chris taking him under his wing to teach him a thing or two about the wonders of love and weaving the films various subplots into a sweet package.
Director Kevin Jordan also wrote this film with the Martini brothers and produced it on a shoestring budget of $40 000. Clearly then it's all about the story. Shot in Los Angeles over 12 days Jordan draws you in with the appealing story line wins you over with some comic relief and keeps you hoping that each brother will get his girl.