Modern Blockbusters: Cowboys & Aliens and GI Joe: Retaliation

Cowboys & Aliens
There is a version of Cowboys & Aliens that exists in the mind of Steven Spielberg (who serves as producer here) that bears his visual wit, his economic ingenuity, and his zippy romanticism for the long-lost regions of the childhood imagination. A childhood imagination that positively flies as high in the sky as a rocket ship when it hears the wonderfully matter-of-fact title “Cowboys & Aliens”, a shouldn’t-be dream-come-true exploitation film out of the ’80s that happened to manifest as a big-budget Frankenstein’s monster of disparate parts in the modern era. This hypothetical version has weight and buoyancy, snark and ballast, and a yippy camaraderie and film-fried joy to please and have fun with itself for, say, 100 minutes, so as to not over-stay its welcome. This hypothetical version is scrappy and spoiling for a fight but never dour and never gloomy, and certainly, its children-playing-in-the-sand sense of draped-on imagination knows no limits.

But that version exists in a nebulous region of collective childhood fantasy, and not, despite high hopes, on the screen. Jon Favreau, who favors light comedy and easy-going charisma rather than glum self-seriousness, seems like a natural fit in theory (the very thing that made Iron Man such a success was its general preference for matinee thrills at the expense of drama or character). But theory and praxis, as so often proves to be the case, are absolutely not the same thing, and the version of Cowboys & Aliens that exists on the screen is a bore. A gloomy, leaden bore, at that, which is even worse.

A gloomy, leaden bore with talented people involved, which is yet still worse. Not simply stars Daniel Craig and a beaten-with-the-boredom-stick Harrison Ford, who are given absolutely nothing to do but brood and pout. But also Matthew Libatique, cinematographer for Darren Aronofsky, who rages with the fiery orange and the cool teal of a soulless movie poster, forced to trade-in his usually expressive, cryptic style for something that pays homage to the superficial awe of the Old West but gives none of the cascading transcendence or the reflective loneliness of the region. At times, Cowboys & Aliens gives off wonderful awe, mind you, but it is soulless awe all the same.

And Favreau himself is a small talent, but he is trapped directing a perfunctory, circumspect blockbuster if ever there was one, allowing no semblance of brevity or wit into a film that is, maybe more than any other film, a card-carrying poster-child for the “it is serious and therefore it must be good” blockbuster movement of the late 2000s and early 2010s. Which leads him into all manner of pointlessly heaving grandeur and a surfeit of expositionary scenes that trumpet mechanical battles, which in turn trumpet a bizarre claim to pseudo-sci-fi-opus status.

A claim the film desperately wishes to earn even despite a title that has no business being anywhere near “sci-fi opus” in any possible sense of the term. Everyone involved apparently forgot the memo that cowboys fighting aliens is plainly a concept with only one viable tone on the screen, a tone that this Transformers-with-sand film judiciously and aggressively avoids at every possible turn. It is archly-competent in the least satisfying possible way, allowing for none of the sideways dalliances with absurdity or gung-ho tomfoolery that ought to let a little air into a film. Cowboys & Aliens ought to be a breeding ground for endearingly anti-serious adolescent matinee thrills, but the finished product takes its wonderfully literal title way too seriously.

Score: 4/10
GI Joe: Retaliation

There is a truly wonderful action scene midway through GI Joe: Retaliation where a collection of black, white, and red shapes collide and cascade over one another in exciting, kinetic, aesthetically bombastic ways.

Those shapes also happen to be ninjas fighting their ninja duels with one another, working for opposite sides in a conflict pitting the multinational GI Joe organization (you know, the multinational “Real American Heroes”) against the venomous Cobra organization. To enjoy that high-flying scene, none of this information is necessary. Scratch that – the context hurts the scene, because it reminds how insipid the rest of the film actually is. Viewing it all as an abstract experiment in shape, color, and motion finds the material at its best. It isn’t quite Norman Mclaren, but with turgid blockbuster cinema, you have to make due with what you can.

Outside of that scene, GI Joe: Retaliation is a real dog of an action movie, making halfhearted gestures toward surprise that would mean something if only the first film had been any good, and if only this one had any idea of what to do with those surprises. It doesn’t even grant an audience the leisure of being specifically bad in a volatile way; it is, rather, blandly bad and functionally corporate in the most soul-destroying way, if, admittedly, a tick above any of the sickening crassness of the cynical Transformers pictures.

Director John Chu at least stays out of the way of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s blatant charm, which manages to pluck up some of the material with his decidedly off-kilter brand of character actor charisma. He is, at any rate, a decided improvement over Channing Tatum, insofar as a potato with a clown nose is a great improvement over a potato, even if this is not nearly the best of Johnson’s recent turns as a legitimately comic screen presence. Nothing Johnson does here is especially compelling, but I’d rather watch him be middling than most other working actors, so, in a warped, perverted sort of way, maybe that’s something? Either way, Retaliation does absolutely nothing to stop the Bruce-Willis-no-longer-cares train from just rolling straight along and robbing all the cinematic banks it can. I guess he had to do something in his old age…

Score: 3/10

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