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.
Heaven. Hell. Us humans in the middle. It's all very complicated. But John Constantine (Keanu Reeves) seems to have a handle on it. Born with a gift he says no human should ever have he has the ability to see what he calls "half-breeds"--angels and demons that walk the earth in human skin (and apparently there are a lot of them). Of course the horror of it is too much to bear and Constantine tries to take his own life. But he fails. Now having been to hell and back again quite literally Constantine is marked as an attempted suicide with a temporary lease on life. He patrols the earthly border between heaven and hell acting as an exorcist of sorts. Of course the guy isn't doing it because he feels empathy for the human race or anything. It's for purely selfish reasons. He hopes that if he sends the devil's foot soldiers back to the depths he'll gain some kind of redemption a free get-out-of-jail card so to speak. Constantine's attitude changes however when a skeptical police detective Angela (Rachel Weisz) enlists his help in solving the mysterious death of her beloved twin sister. They end up uncovering a twisted master plan brewing between the demons and angels which could bring about a catastrophic series of otherworldly events. Perfect.
John Constantine is a little like The Matrix's Neo--an ultra-cool but tormented man of little words with a sardonic fatalistic outlook on life who kicks a myriad of nasty-looking demons (instead of a myriad of nasty-looking machines) back from whence they came. Yes Reeves has done this before but that's because he's good at it. You can't blame him for sticking with something that works. Weisz also holds her own as the devoutly religious Angela who nonetheless has a hard time believing there are actual angels and demons running around among us. That is of course until she spends about 10 minutes with Constantine and sees just how real they are. As far as the rest of the humans in the film Shia LaBeouf (Holes) does a nice comical turn as Constantine's sidekick and protégé while Djimon Hounsou (In America) works his voodoo mojo as a witch doctor who has a long-standing if strained relationship with Constantine. The not-so-human counterparts are equally intriguing. Peter Stormare (Fargo) delivers a somewhat over-the-top but devilishly eccentric performance as Satan. Tilda Swinton (The Deep End) dons the wings of the arch-angel Gabriel to whom Constantine is always asking for a reprieve but who has got her own agenda.
Based on the DC Comics/Vertigo comic-book Hellblazer Constantine is demonic eye candy. Obviously inspired by the many music videos he's helmed in the past director Francis Lawrence making his feature film debut paints a pretty dark and moody world with shadowy wet rat-infested (or cockroach-infested) corners that hide the horrific demon half-breeds as well as all other kinds of terrible baddies. Then when we get into Hades itself where the demons and seplavites--a sub-genre of the damned who are sightless mindless soul eaters--prowl it's an apocalyptic landscape. Lovely place. Unfortunately the script isn't nearly as stimulating. It must be an arduous task adapting a series of comic books so to his credit screenwriter Kevin Brodbin does do a nice job introducing us to Constantine and his world. But Brodbin seems to have incorporated too much. As the action escalates more and more plot points and characters are thrown in complicating matters. By the time the long-winded climax is over you're exhausted.