The Last (Grumpy) Action Hero: Harrison Ford in Cowboys and Aliens

Cowboys & Aliens relies on actor's tough-baked persona.

By , Columnist

Universal Pictures

Harrison Ford goes gruff in Cowboys & Aliens.

Cowboys & Aliens serves as a reminder that by at least one definition, Harrison Ford is a true movie star. In this western, as in all his movies, Ford does not disappear inside his characters. No matter who he plays, no matter the genre, the 69-year old-actor comes across as one gruff dude.

Like Cary Grant, Robert Redford, Jimmy Stewart or George Clooney, it's all about the personal. You're not going to see Ford affecting a foreign accent or doing a fake limp, or playing a famous but tortured soul in the kind of bio-pic that makes victory laps when Academy Awards get passed out.

In place of versatile virtuosity, Ford triumphs through a steadfast confidence in his irascible core self. Working a minimalist bag of tricks that favors action over rhetoric, Ford filters the neuroses, fears, and ambitions of his characters through the skeptical eyes of a carpenter from the Midwest who never took an acting class but has taken any number of punches to the gut and is damned proud of doing his own stunt work.

Ford's glare and a don't-screw-with me growl have only gotten more intimidating over the years. He brings it all to bear in Cowboys & Aliens, playing a bad-ass cattle baron named Colonel Dolarhyde. Daniel Craig, the unnamed loner dressed like the Raiders of the Lost Ark era Ford in hat, vest, and shirt, leads the charge, but Ford is close behind as the macho pioneer elder who lectures his son surrogates about using a knife in order to "become a man."

As events in the film unfold, Dolarhyde eventually shows a little tenderness. That Ford takes his character through subtle changes is no surprise. Notoriously picky about scripts, he insists on whipping stories into solid shape before committing to pictures, even when they're produced, as is Cowboys & Aliens, by Steven Spielberg.

In journalism circles, the craggy-faced action star has a reputation for getting prickly with reporters. Studio exec Joe Roth, who produced Air Force One for Ford, told me a few years ago, "He suffers fools badly." So I was relieved when Roth added, "Harrison's in a good mood today."

A few minutes later, I sat down with Ford to talk about his 2003 comedy Hollywood Homicide. After he lowered his compact frame into an easy chair, Ford said, "I've never been keen on acting classes. For me, that never got to the heart of the matter. Over the years, I learned by doing and by observing how other people worked. I figured out for myself that acting was separate from, and came after, the story work. First, I have to develop faith in the story."

Given his popcorn movie specialty, Ford will probably never win an Oscar, but he delivers performances that are sturdy and true. In an era when craftsmanship appears to be headed toward the same fate as the American buffalo, Ford provides a rare service to moviegoers: consistency.

Cowboys & Aliens opens Friday.

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Los Angeles-based writer/musician Hugh Hart covers movies, television, design, art and miscellaneous slices of pop culture for publications including Wired Magazine, Los Angeles Times and New York Times. When he's not interviewing people like Quentin Tarantino or Lindsay Lohan, Hugh likes to glug blackā€¦

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