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Movie Review: Cowboys and Aliens (2011) August 27, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Movie Reviews, Reviews.
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James Bond (Daniel Craig) and Han Solo/Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) in a western fused with nasty aliens, directed by John Favreau (Iron Man), with producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer and executive producer Steven Spielberg.  In terms of expectations, they don’t get much higher than Cowboys and Aliens (adapted from the graphic novel of the same name), which could explain the lukewarm reception the film has received thus far.

But was it really that bad?  No.  I actually thought it was okay.  Big stars, freaky monsters, large-scale battle scenes and some well-executed action sequences.  But given what this film could have been, Cowboys and Aliens was ultimately somewhat of a disappointment.

The story is relatively simple — Daniel Craig wakes up in the middle of the desert with an alien bracelet on his wrist and no recollection of who he is or where he has been.  Stuff happens, and along with Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell and Clancy Brown (everybody’s favourite prison guard from Shawshank), he goes on a mission to rescue some humans while trying to piece together his shattered memory.

All the requisite elements for an engaging motion picture are there.  Craig is excellent as the kick-ass, “don’t mess with me” protagonist, while the supporting roles are adequately filled by legend Ford and rising star Wilde.  The film has that dusty, gritty western feel, along with old fashioned bravado and gun fights — plus the strangeness and unknown feel you get from alien invasion films.  The special affects are fine by current standards.  The story is formulaic enough for a typical summer blockbuster but not to the extent that it becomes a distraction.  The character development and subplot boxes are also ticked.

And yet Cowboys and Aliens feels like an empty blockbuster — all style, (to be fair) a little substance, but no soul.  If I had to pinpoint what went wrong, I would probably say that the biggest problem lies with the aliens, who are menacing but that’s about it.  They’re just there to kill and be killed, monsters with no personality whatsoever, and as a result don’t invoke genuine suspense.

Another problem is that everybody in the film seems to play their roles too straight — there are some elements of humour but for the most part it’s all about being cool.  There’s nothing wrong with that per se, though I feel with such a potentially fun premise they should have had more fun with it than they did.

(And I’m not sure if it was just the cinema I attended, but many of the night scenes in the film came across as incredibly dark, to the point where it became irritating.)

Having said all that, Cowboys and Aliens is better than a lot of the criticism suggests.  I was never disengaged during the 118-minute running time, and I almost wished they could have dedicated more time to certain plot points (especially those involving Ford).  As far as action blockbusters go, it’s certainly a lot better than say Transformers 3, but given the crew involved I should never have even considered comparing the two films.

3.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Iron Man 2 (2010) May 1, 2010

Posted by pacejmiller in Movie Reviews.
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It was always going to be an uphill battle for director Jon Favreau in creating a sequel to Iron Man that lives up to the original, one of the best superhero films of all-time (along with The Dark Knight, depending on personal preferences).  Despite a valiant effort, as expected, Iron Man 2 falls short of its predecessor, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still a fun, thrilling superhero action film.

Iron Man 2 begins where the first one ended, when weapons genius Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) reveals to the world that he is indeed Iron Man.  To be honest, there’s not a whole lot in terms of plot.  Most of the film is about the brilliant and cocky Stark as he struggles to deal with being a superhero and facing his own mortality.  Meanwhile, he has the US government pressuring him to give up his invention, a couple of new villains on his back, and dealing with a range of difficult personal relationships all at the same time.

The cast is again brilliant.  Apart from the sensational Robert Downey Jr as Stark/Iron Man, there is a brand new Russian villain, Whiplash (Mickey Rourke), a new competitor by the name of Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), and a sexy and mysterious new assistant Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson).  Characters returning from the original include secretary Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), supportive friend Happy Hogan (John Favreau), and army buddy Lt Colonel James Rhodes (played this time by Don Cheadle, replacing Terrence Howard).  Samuel L Jackson, who appeared in a cameo after the end credits in the original, has a slightly bigger role this time as Nick Fury of SHIELD.

Robert Downey Jr shows once again why he is getting all the biggest and best roles in Hollywood.  He is totally believable as a genius, a narcissistic prick and a superhero, sometimes all at once.  For me, Sam Rockwell absolutely steals the show as jealous rival Justin Hammer.  He is equal parts pathetic and dangerous, but always hilarious.  Mickey Rourke is also very good as Whiplash, his performance giving the character a dimension not achievable from a lessor actor.  Scarlett Johansson felt somewhat underused, though she did get to strut her stuff for a brief moment.  If there is a weak link, it’s Don Cheadle, whose straight-faced performance doesn’t live up to the deadpanning foundations laid down by Terrence Howard.

As for the action, most of Iron Man 2 felt more subdued than what I remembered from the original.  That is, of course, until the final battle, which is insanely exhilarating.  There’s more machines, more weapons and more explosions than the first film, but because it lacks that unexpected freshness and attitude, Iron Man 2 has less of a “wow” factor.  And for some reason, I felt there were a few moments where the film sagged a little.  A stronger script with less subplots and fewer characters may have served the film better, but these are relatively minor complaints.

The first Iron Man film blew me away because it was so different and fun.  Being a sequel, Iron Man 2 started from a disadvantaged position because it is stuck with the parameters it has set for itself and consequently has become so much harder to surprise.  That said, it’s still a solid film which is a lot of fun and about as well as you could have expected under the circumstances.

3.75 stars out of 5!

[PS: If you want to stay till after the credits there is a short scene which introduces us to Thor’s hammer, which I believe is for a different franchise.  It’s a long wait and a short scene that doesn’t show much, so only stay if you really want to see it.]

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