“Don’t hang your hat higher than you can reach.” — Popular Belizean Proverb
It’s the Harrison Comparison – two big-budget, high-energy, studio-produced, action adventure yarns starring a Ford with enough miles on him to qualify not only for Triple-A, but AARP as well. I don’t know about you, but I love being taken for a ride (unless it involves a Mexican cartel), and this summer the silver screen is besotted with a plethora of eye-popping, CGI-infested mega-movies starring comic book heroes and video icons. But only one has its roots firmly planted in the wild, wild West – the two-genres-in-a-blender contender, Cowboys & Aliens.
And who better than Mr. Harrison Ford to lead the way? After all, with the Indiana Jones franchise, Ford has proven himself over and over again to be America’s reigning cinema swashbuckler. The fourth and most recent edition of that series, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, serves as our Champion for the purpose of this Smackdown by virtue of its own alien storyline..
Two Harrison Ford genre-mashing period pieces, both featuring an other-worldly presence. They say the hat makes the man, so which one of Ford’s fedoras will prevail in this head-to-head duel? The 10-gallon Stetson? Or the wool felt homburg?
When I first heard the title, Cowboys & Aliens, I was initially inclined to compare it to either Billy the Kid vs. Dracula or Jessie James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter. Both of these 1966 low-budget, quickie productions were directed by the legendary William “One-Shot” Beaudine, and their titles are no sillier at first blush. But Cowboys & Aliens is a $100 million-plus extravaganza with the legendary Steven Spielberg serving as one of the executive producers. Clearly Universal Pictures, Dreamworks and Imagine Entertainment are anticipating boffo box office results, despite the fact that any picture set in the Old West rarely comes close to earning back Cowboys & Aliens‘ estimated production budget.
The year is 1873, the setting is the Arizona Territory. Absolution is a mysterious desert town – think Black Rock – and on this particular bad day a stranger named Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) arrives sporting a mysterious, high-tech manacle on his left wrist. The amnesia-stricken Lonergan has no idea what it is, and the fine citizens of Absolution aren’t inclined to help, since this God-forsaken watering hole is run by iron-fisted Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford… playing the bad guy?), a man who doesn’t take kindly to strangers. The proper order of things soon degenerates into panic, as Absolution is attacked by hordes of aliens with warp-speed, dragonfly-inspired spacecraft armed with death rays and a bungee cord used to abduct selected earthlings for God-knows-what reason.
Whatever the aliens’ motivation, it becomes apparent that Lonergan is the lone ranger among cowboys and Indians alike when it comes to their hope for salvation. With everyone in danger of annihilation, the overmatched earthlings — both townsfolk and Apaches — unite in an epic showdown for survival under the leadership of the stranger everyone rejected. Everyone, that is, except for the beautiful, gun-toting Ella (Olivia Wilde), another elusive traveler with a mysterious past. And when the sci-fi, hi-fi, summer-fun pyrotechnics begin, Cowboys & Aliens kicks into high gear.
The Defending Champion
It had been 19 years since Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was released, so, appropriately, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is set 19 years later. Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones is now 65, and the enemy is no longer nasty yet nattily attired Nazis, but Cold War Russians. While the uniforms aren’t nearly as stylish, the menace factor remains high thanks to Cate Blanchett, who portrays uber-villainess Colonel Irina Spalko, a ruthless, renegade KGB officer whose coiffure harkens back to the glorious days of The Ed Sullivan Show and the adorable Little Johnny, Senor Wences’ famous hand puppet.
The year is 1957, and Spalko, with Indiana Jones as her prisoner, commands a troupe of Russian soldiers who defeat their American counterparts and capture a hangar within the top security compound known as Area 51. Their mission – steal a crate containing an artifact recovered ten years earlier at the flying saucer crash site in Roswell, New Mexico. Spalko succeeds and gets away cleanly. Indiana escapes but is caught in the midst of an A-bomb detonation, taking refuge inside a lead-lined refrigerator. It’s pretty hard to accept that there are lead-lined refrigerators, much less ones that would provide protection from a nearby atomic bomb blast, but then again, our government once assured our school children that “duck and cover” could save their lives — proof positive that the suspension of disbelief isn’t limited to watching movies…
Forced to take a sabbatical from his teaching position, Indie runs into a young man by the name of Mutt Williams (Shia LeBeouf), who not only has great looking hair, but who desperately wants to save Professor Harold Oxley (the always wonderful John Hurt), an old friend of Indiana’s. Oxley is obsessed with the legend of El Dorado, the City of Gold, and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, all supposedly brimming with treasures and untold secrets that Spalko is also pursuing. What follows is non-stop action, frenetic pacing and mind-blowing chase scenes.
Talk about fun! Crystal Skull has got man-eating ants; death-defying plunges down not one, not two, but three towering waterfalls; monkeys, lots of monkeys; a cagey KGB femme fatale, who is as persistent in her evil ways as any U.S. Congressman; and the mystery of flying saucers (sort of) explained at last!
Countering is Cowboys & Aliens, with no man-eating ants, but a bevy of malevolent, endoplasmic extraterrestrials, myriad death-defying forays into narrow canyons, and some scary Apaches – never, ever, discount Apaches. It’s also got Olivia Wilde in her best role to date – Bickford Shmeckler’s Cool Ideas notwithstanding. And better than just an explanation of flying saucers, we see the real thing on screen, or at least some pretty awesome CGI version of the real thing, which is almost as good.
While both sound like top-of-the-line screen gems, both have more flaws than my wife’s wedding ring. For Crystal Skull, it is clear that it can be detrimental having as many as four writers accorded WGA credit (David Koepp, George Lucas, Jeff Nathanson and Philip Kaufman) and several more believed to be active behind the scenes. Geographical errors abound, including a 1957 map which shows Belize – a country that did not exist until 1973. Am I being picky? Maybe, but that example of factual sloppiness also extends to the action sequences, and my ability to suspend belief does have limits.
Likewise, Cowboys & Aliens also possesses more than its fair share of gaffes. Six screenwriters, headed by Robert Orci & Alex Kurtzman, are credited with this amalgamation of two cinematic genres, but while the transition between them is for the most part seamless, the script defies logic when it comes to Lonergan’s use of his spiffy, laser-blasting, hologram-sighted, out-of-this-world bracelet. Seems like his usage is predicated less on a will to live than on the whims of the studio marketing department, which is probably drooling over the introduction of Chinese-made replicas onto the shelves of your local Walmart. Clumsy flashbacks hinder the pacing and do little to explain Lonergan’s amnesia. As for Mr. Ford, he undergoes a dynamic character arc, but the impetus for this change is undeveloped, thus it rings a bit hollow.
Rooskies or Buckarooskies?
Both Cowboys & Aliens and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull have high-energy, action-packed diversions which almost mask their shortcomings, thanks to scintillating stunts out the wazoo, ear-splitting sound effects and the indomitable screen presence of Harrison Ford, the ageless cat in the hat. When most studio releases feel twice as long, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’s 122 minutes speed by faster than a Quarter Horse on crack. One can forgive the plot holes and the unrepentant disregard for the laws of physics and logic, because like all the Indiana Jones movies it has an underlying, almost innocent charm, and so never takes itself too seriously.
On the other hand, Cowboys & Aliens director Jon Favreau has been quoted as saying his intention is to mix a straight-ahead Western, like the kind once made by Sergio Leone and John Ford, with the kind of terrifying science fiction film exemplified by Alien or Predator. The aim is high, and the execution is surprisingly good. And along the way we are treated to seeing several things we’ve never seen before, like death by molten gold, the resurrection of a foxy young woman (Wilde) from a roaring fire (talk about a hot chick!), an enormous concrete and mortar spaceship – at least that’s what it looked like — and and an upside-down paddle-wheeler in the hot Arizona desert. This seems more like Fellini than Leone, but what the heck…
Spielberg and Favreau were determined to play everything as straight as an Apache’s arrow, but the script does waver on occasion when it comes to plausibility, credibility and authenticity. Having said this, Favreau delivers a film that is both unique in premise and fresh in its look.
Crystal Skull, on the other hand, was intentionally campy, making its script flaws more forgivable. Despite this advantage, it seems a bit dated today, while Cowboys is more in tune with contemporary audiences and their expectations. Both films deliver high-spirited high-jinks and a big bang for the buck, but after very careful consideration, the 10-gallon Stetson sits atop the hat rack, and Cowboys & Aliens prevails by a hair.