Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Best Pun Ever

How many comic book movies are we up to now? Thanks especially to illustrated paper giant Marvel Comics' rush to get every major hero out into the theaters in record numbers (Thor, X-Men First Class, Captain America), the comic book film has been the definition of cinema in 2011. It hasn't just been the two major comic book labels (along with DC's Green Lantern) that have been releasing screen material either: independent comics have been adapted for the big show in 2011, including Dynamite Entertainment's Green Hornet and the Korean comic Priest. Not all of these films have been worth watching, but the success many of them have garnered is a positive sign for future projects in that vein. The latest to join their ranks is Cowboys & Aliens, based on the graphic novel from Platinum Studios. Combining themes of westerns and alien invasion, the film's trailers boasted of explosions, big-name stars (Daniel "007" Craig and Harrison "Indy" Ford), and the helm under the control of Iron Man director Jon Favreau, fast proving himself a talented action director. The real question going in was whether this particular title would be closer to Favreau's excellent work in the first IM film, or if it would be more akin to the train wreck that was Iron Man 2.

Obviously, the aliens worship Prince concerts...
It's 1873, and Jake Lonergan (Craig) suddenly awakes in the middle of the Arizona desert. He has no idea of who he is, what he does, or how he came to be in his current predicament. He certainly doesn't know how he came to be in possession of the strange metal bracelet stuck to his wrist. Stumbling into the closest town, he is recognized by the local authorities as a wanted felon, and news of his arrival reaches the ears of retired Civil War Colonel Woodrow Dollarhyde (Ford), who wants Lonergan to return the gold our amnesiac apparently stole. As this is going on, strange alien crafts attack the town and kidnap many of the local populace, leading Lonergan (who discovers his bracelet is a kick-ass weapon) and Dollarhyde to put aside their differences and hunt down the monsters who kidnapped their townsfolk, hoping to take them back.

Whew, that must have been a REALLY fun night!
Westerns as a genre haven't been major plusses in cinema in recent years. With forced hybrids like Wild Wild West, Jonah Hex and The Warrior's Way failing at every turn, the genre right now is a far cry from its heyday of Gunsmoke and The Magnificent Seven. The day of legendary western directors like Sam Peckinpah can be chronicled by my friend Brian, but these days success in that area is rare as the past year has featured a couple of major victories in the True Grit remake and the animated Rango. That doesn't make the idea of creating a western film any less hazardous to your financial backers, however. If anything, it will make some people too hopeful for the fading western genre to make a comeback, and disappoint many in the process.

He'd better hope there are no snakes... he hates snakes...
Still, regardless of the status of the western in this day and age, I had a lot of fun in Cowboys & Aliens. While the western angle is somewhat cliched (references to the Civil War, hostile Native Americans, wanted felons, corrupt authority figures, etc.), the sci-fi elements respond aptly by being just as if not more cliched. The result is surprisingly a film that feels fresh and almost original, thanks especially to a story crafted by a small army of screenwriters and expertly told by the ever-expanding Favreau, back on top after last year's IM2 debacle. The film has not a boring moment, and while some parts are so insane as to be unbelievable, my enjoyment at the theater never ebbed, which is more than I can say about most of the films I've witnessed this year. With a well-rounded cast of characters each with their own personal motivations, Favreau does a wonderful job developing them from somewhat-contrived personas to somewhat-contrived people we can root for. The story may be the weakest part of the film, but it considering some of what I've seen this year, here it is but a paltry criticism..

Don't make the mistake of fist-bumping him
It helps that those characters are played by some of the most talented folk in Hollywood. With the future of James Bond in serious question, Daniel Craig was very much in need of a new career direction. I'm not sure how I feel about him doing films like this, but he certainly takes to it naturally. The English actor makes for the most unlikely American desperado, but effective he is. Even though Jake Lonergan doesn't have much that is different from many a western anti-hero, it's still fun seeing his past unfold, and to watch Craig believably learn it alongside us. Harrison Ford is also amazing as the "bad guy" Dollarhyde. Ford has played the Hollywood hero so long it's somewhat strange to see him play such a gruff and cruel character, but when you think about it you can see where the progression of his career naturally pushes him to this point. Perfectly blending rich honcho with concerned parent in a way that makes him even more compelling than Craig, Ford once again proves to us that he still has "it.". The two are easily the best the film has to offer. I wish I could say the same for Olivia Wilde as mysterious traveler Ella. While she starts off interesting as a gun-toting self-capable woman on the frontier, poor development and lousy dialogue sabotage what could have been a very good performance. Sure, Wilde has the looks and a good head for the business, but I'm starting to wonder when that great performance is going to arrive on the screen. The secondary characters in Cowboys & Aliens are a good bunch, manned by talented character actors who take their jobs seriously and know exactly what they have to do to be believable to the audience. Sam Rockwell, Clancy Brown, Adam Beach, Raul Trujillo, Walton Goggins and Keith Carradine all expertly play their roles, from Rockwell as a mild-mannered saloon owner to Brown's rifle-wielding priest to Goggins' sycophantic bandit. And as my compatriot Paul has often said, "There's no such thing as a bad movie with a Carradine," in this case the local Sheriff. Sure, these roles are anything but original, but this cast really works their chemistry and makes the hard work pay off, creating an authentic western setting to blow up with ray guns and plasma discharge.

Is Craig channeling a little Christian Bale here?
Sure, it's riddled with flaws. The story is comprised of two cliched genres that don't do much to deviate from their set procedures with the notable exception that they coexist in the first place. The special effects are top notch, but it is the stellar core cast and the smart directing from Favreau that separate this film from your average Syfy Original movie. While it's far from the best action film I've seen this year (or am likely to see), it inhabits that same realm of cool that was already kept warm by fun thrill-rides Fast 5, Captain America and Battle: Los Angeles. If you're tired of the typical adventure film and want something very different, Cowboys & Aliens should be right up your alley. At the very least, go see Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford out-act most of Hollywood for a couple of hours.

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