I like mashup films. I think they’re great fun. One of the best times I had at the movies last years was with The Warrior’s Way or as it is affectionately referred to in most circles “Cowboys vs. Ninjas.” There’s nothing wrong with a little pulpy crossover action to waste some time at the theater. Cowboys & Aliens, directed by Iron Man helmer Jon Favreau, is an admirable effort that has many great components but fails to fit together to form a perfect overall picture. The cast is superb; Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Clancy Brown, Sam Rockwell, Walton effing Goggins…but a good majority of the material they’re given really doesn’t merit their involvement. The overall product is just too bland for its own good. It’s a summer blockbuster, so some level of pandering to the lowest common denominator is expected, but the truth is that at no point in the course of the film do they aim to do anything really memorable. I’m sure I’ll have forgotten most of the film by this time tomorrow which is why I’m writing the review now, basically thirty minutes after the credits started to roll.
Let me say what does work; Daniel Craig cuts a good figure as the classic “man with no name” archetype here, a testament to his screen presence elevating the material enough that we as an audience want to stick it through until the end. Harrison Ford is more lively and vivid here than he has been in years and it serves to remind us why at one point he was the biggest movie star in the world. Sam Rockwell being Sam Rockwell. He can do no wrong and here is no exception. Favreau must have had a hell of a time working with him on IronMan 2 to bring him back again for a role that’s especially meaty. Olivia Wilde’s eyes. Dear god. I know some people argue that she’s either the hottest woman on earth or a strange looking creature but I can’t get past her eyes. Cue drooling.
What doesn’t work is a little bit harder to nail down. The film has some pacing problems, bordering on dull on a few occasions. The action scenes are not especially fantastic or captivating. It’s really a case of the people in the cast not getting enough to do. I think a majority of the problems can be traced to the fact that the script has over five credited authors and that’s never the sign of a unified front when it comes to the narrative. It’s a hodge-podge at best. A well shot hodge-podge filled with some great talent, but still a hodge-podge.
And now in the hopes of driving some decent web-hits, I will populate the rest of the post with sexy photos of Olivia Wilde, because that seemed to help in previous posts.
I want to come out and say that as far as comics to film translations go, the franchise that seems to have taken the essense of the stories and chracters and adapted them best for the screen has to be the Iron Man series. Every character retains their core in ways that are lost with films like Batman, Superman, and the X-Men films. I think the most telling moment in Iron Man 2 is when Tony Stark is clutching a bottle of champagne, suited up in the armor and scratching the turntables at his birthday party. The film is very comfortable in portraying the character in moments that otherwise would seem awkward. The films embrace the atmosphere that a billionare in a weaponized suit creates. It’s a level of fantasy fulfillment and straightforward production that seems lost in other films. It doesn’t feel very tongue in cheek, it’s just presented at face value and the audience goes with it, because it seems natural.
Which really needs to be the case in a film like Iron Man. It’s like a ride, and you have to be willing to realize that. Iron Man 2 certainly has some setbacks that are evident in most sequels. I however do not see the problem that certain people do, claiming that the film has too many new characters. All the characters introduced in the film do wonders with the time they are given. Sam Rockwell probably does the most with the limited screen time he’s given, making Justin Hammer his own and providing an excellent foil for Tony Stark and the scenes where the two share the screen are absolutely phenomenal. The chemistry between the two actors is amazing. And I think that’s another crux of what makes the film work the way it does; the chemistry that all these actors bring to their roles is as top tier as you can get. Gwenyth Paltrow, who I normally despise, works well with anyone she’s put up against. The same goes for Downey, or Don Cheadle or even Mickey Rourke, who just seethes a sort of dirty despicability. What I like about this film is that it feels like a Marvel book come to life. We get Nick Fury and the Black Widow sharing scenes with Iron Man and War Machine, all these heroes converging on screen in a way we’ve never seen before. In films like The Dark Knight, we got Batman and multiple villains, creating a miniature scale version of this effect, but that was a microcosm while this feels grander in scope.
While some will argue that War Machine and Black Widow don’t get enough time to be fleshed out completely, and therefore giving the producers no reason to use them in the first place, I think the film does a sufficient job in presenting them in such a way that when the inevitable spin-off films happen, they can hit the ground running in ways they previously could not. The origin story is such a boring aspect to most heroes, and most of the time we’re so familiar with them that we get bored when they play out on the screen, or we get angry if they change something in such a way that it betrays the spirit of the source material. I believe that with Iron Man, Marvel is doing an amazing job of world building. They have more room to maneuver than they ever have previously and it’s sad that DC can’t pull off the same feat. I personally would love to see a post-credits scene in Green Lantern where Hal Jordan is tracking a fast moving bogey only to happen upon a red blur that slows down just enough for us to get a glimpse of The Flash. Or maybe he crashes an F-15 into an invisible jet. Who cares, but let us see a larger world.
Like I said, the film is not perfect, and It probably could have used another big action scene to offset the more character driven dialogue pieces. I don’t need action all the time but the first film felt more balanced in this regard. I will admit however that the final set piece in this film trumps the less than stellar Iron Monger fight in the original, even if it is somewhat derivitive of that particular setup.