Friday, July 29, 2011

Built Ford Tough

Werth: Hi there, Wise!

Wise:  Hello, Werth. Is that poorly wrapped gift you're holding for me?

Werth: No. I forgot Harrison Ford's birthday two weeks ago and now I'm wondering if it's too late to give him his present.

Wise: He might be a bit busy with the premiere of his new movie, Cowboys and Aliens.

Werth: Oh right! Ford and Daniel Craig play a couple of cowboys lookin' to rassle up some cussed invaders of the outer space variety.

Wise: Ford's career has been full of heroes who've had to deal with aliens in one form or another.

Werth: Wookies, Nazis and the Amish—he's dealt with them all—but one of my favorite roles is the one where he goes up against "skin jobs."

Wise: Sounds like something that happens at a frat house on Wednesday night. 

Werth: After creating his two most iconic characters in Star Wars (1977) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Ford wanted to break away from Han and Indy and do something with a little more gravitas. So when Steven Spielberg recommended him to Ridley Scott for the film version of Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Ford took the gig.

Wise: Androids and electric sheep sound less like gravitas and more like nerd farming.

Werth: At first glance, I'd agree, but Scott's Blade Runner (1982) really transcends the sci-fi genre. After blending horror and sci-fi so successfully in Alien (1979), Scott did something very interesting. With his production team he took the science fiction aspects of Dick's novel and infused them with the elements of film noir giving birth to what some call "tech noir." Rick Deckard is a blade runner—a quasi-cop who hunts down and terminates errant androids. 
But rather than sporting space suits and jet packs, Deckard is the quintessential hard-boiled private eye. He's not too talkative, wears a trench coat, smokes, drinks whiskey and has an eye for the ladies. But like P.I. heroes Bogey and Mitchum, his hard surface conceals a thoughtful soul, with a tarnished sense of right and wrong. As he hunts down these androids who look just like us, he begins to question just what makes us—or them—human?

Wise: I wonder that every time I watch America's Next Top Model

Werth: Art designer David L. Snyder, production designer Lawrence G. Paull, and set decorator Linda DeScenna seamlessly melded the L.A. of the future with its crime-ridden past. Ziggurat-like buildings pierce the bright gloom created by flaming gas jets high above the city, while below, wrecked art deco and classical architecture crumble beneath the gaze of towering Japanese video ads and monotonous blimp messages. 
Metal fan blades and ceiling fans whip through smoke-filled air as if the year was 1941 and not 2019. Costumes designed by Michael Kaplan and Charles Node are visions of shoulder pads, knee-length skirts and fur collars as if they were dressing Joan Crawford and not Sean Young. 
Young's red lips and upswept hair speak of another era while she walks down a crowded, rain-covered street populated by air-cars and videophones. Even the Vangelis soundtrack is a synthesizer re-working of noir instruments like the piano and sax. It's a masterwork of setting that blends the look and dark themes of these two genres together.

Wise: The atmosphere is so richly layered that it sometimes threatens to overshadow the actors.

Werth: Some critics at the time thought so. But Ford's tough guy with a sensitive side routine is effortless, Sean Young's beautiful and damaged Rachael portended an acting career that never materialized, Daryl Hannah's gymnastic performance as a "pleasure model" is a sadist's delight and 
Rutger Hauer is so creepy in his Aryan other-ness that it requires no leap of faith to imagine that he is a mad machine, killing people until he can find the answers he is seeking. With a dedicated cult following and renewed critical appreciation, Blade Runner's lackluster box office performance at the time probably had more to do with a misleading marketing campaign and its summer competition (a little movie called E.T.) than with the actual quality of the film.

Wise: Ford has had his share of blockbuster hits. What's interesting is that his star persona has always been something of a reluctant hero.  While his early roles leavened his courage with a witty sardonicism, his latter roles required him to play the quiet, noble man who gets pushed too far.  And no role typifies this change more than President James Marshall in Air Force One (1997).  

Werth: The Electoral College does radically change a man.  

Wise: While on a state visit to Russia, President Marshall abandons a prepared speech to denounce the war crimes of imprisoned General Ivan Radek.  This breech prompts a minor diplomatic crisis, and when the First Family boards Air Force One, a rogue group of Radek's loyalists led by Ivan Korshunov (Gary Oldman) hijack the plane and take the President, his family and the cabinet hostage.  

Werth: Are all the Russians named Ivan in this film? 

Wise: After a skirmish, President Marshall is hustled to an escape pod by the Secret Service, and the hijackers contact the White House where Vice President Kathryn Bennett (Glenn Close) skillfully manages the power grabs and protocol while Washington roils over the possibility that the President has been killed.  Of course, Marshall hasn't run off to safety, but instead has secreted himself on the plane while he steels himself to outfox and outfight his captors.  

Werth: After dealing with Calista Flockhart, it should be a breeze.  

Wise: Of course it is, but director Wolfgang Petersen stages the action with constantly escalating intensity, and while the final outcome is never in doubt, when victory does come, it feels both cathartic and hard-earned.  But it's definitely Harrison Ford's performance that transforms what could have been a run-of-the-mill action movie into something worth watching.  
Screenwriter Andrew W. Marlowe provided all the typical thrills and double-crosses de rigueur to action films of this stripe, but Ford's charisma brings nobility and an almost imperceptible wink of humor to the project, preventing it from falling into an overblown fantasia of revenge.  

Werth: Too bad Petersen couldn't create any excitement in his remake of The Poseidon Adventure.  

Wise: He also directed Das Boot and The NeverEnding Story, so he must either be a genre genius—  

Werth: Or a madman.  Speaking of, do you think I would look crazy if I went to the Cowboys and Aliens premiere to give Harrison Ford his present?  

Wise: Why don't you just saddle up for next week's adventure at Film Gab?  

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