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.
Kill Bill Vol. 2 picks up where the first installment left off with The Bride (Uma Thurman) delivering a "refresh your memory" monologue as she drives to her next victim Budd (aka Sidewinder). These shots are cut through with flashbacks that tell the whole story of the "Massacre at Two Pines " and it's instant-gratification city. First we meet the wedding party the reverend and his wife and Rufus the piano player (Samuel L. Jackson in a cameo role). But most importantly we meet the elusive Bill (David Carradine) for the first time. (He appeared in the first film only in voiceover.) You know from the start that this movie isn't going to rely on the same suspense devices the first film did and you soon learn it doesn't rely as heavily on the blood and gore that so distinguished the first installment. The creatively shot and intelligently constructed opening scenes make Tarantino's epic of evil gripping right from the start in its own right. Amazingly considering the way she ripped her enemies apart in the first film The Bride doesn't always get her man in this one; Budd (Michael Madsen) actually gets the best of the Bride--at least temporarily--and entombs her in "The Lonely Grave of Paula Schultz " one of the most horrifying scenes of burial alive ever. Flash back to "The Cruel Tutelage" of kung-fu master Pei Mei (Gordon Liu) who taught The Bride how to break through wood planks with her fists from three inches away (which comes in handy now) and the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart technique (which will come in handy later). Freeing herself from her makeshift grave to do battle with her victims once more the Bride dispenses with both Budd and Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah) who's conveniently appeared on the scene and it's on to the greatest battle of them all--it's time to Kill Bill
Thurman proves her calm cool collected mettle once more as The Bride (aka Beatrix Kiddo aka Black Mamba) plucking out eyeballs bloodying her fists punching wood exploding hearts and the like. But we also see her completely vulnerable during flashbacks to the time she spent in a coma after the attack (some gnarly stuff happens in the hospital but no spoilers forthcoming from this reviewer). And there's a softer side to Black Mamba when she's awake too. In another flashback we see The Bride on her last assignment before she quit the assassination business to become a wife and mom--the stick in her EPT has just turned blue when a rival assassin comes knocking through the door and it's a poignant moment (with a Tarantino edge) as she tries to protect her unborn child. Carradine's Bill is somehow less menacing than one might have expected but there's enough creepiness in the character for an audience to imagine what a real hard case he must have been in his glory days. Hannah enjoys a splendid comeback role as The Bride's fellow assassin and she's regal in her adherence to the warrior code they share. Madsen wears Sidewinder's cowboy hat and slouchy jeans like he was born to them and swills whisky like a ranch hand yet he still captures the wistfulness of the once-great fighter if somewhat ironically.
Fans of Tarantino's Pulp Fiction can start rejoicing. He's finally made a film that lives up to the standard he set back in 1990. All the influences on the first film are still very much in evidence here--Asian martial arts films in particular--but each chapter in this installment as in the previous has its own look creating a mix n' match patchwork feel that somehow manages to work in spite of itself. If there's one criticism it's that it indulges a bit in its own cleverness and that makes it a little too long. But Vol. 2 shouldn't see the big criticisms aimed at Vol. 1's dark gory violence; instead Vol. 2 finds kinship with its creator's first big hit in its story and characters. Sure it's overblown; sure everyone is evil on some level. That's the fun of it. And every now and then a little compassion comes through or a little humor and it captures the ridiculousness of human nastiness whether it's the petty arguments you had all day at work or all the slaughter that's been perpetrated with a Hattori Hanzo sword.