It has cowboys. It has aliens. It has cowboys and aliens. It’s not a bad film. It’s not a good film. It is a movie. That’s a pretty lackluster opener, but, walking out of the screening, I felt almost completely neutral about Cowboys and Aliens–it was like the things I liked and the things I disliked were in perfect balance.
The film doesn’t fail to deliver on anything the title promises, and you can lose count of the standard tropes from either genre that it hits, but it’s tough to maintain the toothy grin I expected all throughout. Though I’m getting ahead of myself.
Daniel Craig plays Jake Lonergan (one of many last names I suspect are puns but am not entirely sure), a notorious outlaw who awakes one morning with a heavy case of amnesia and one hell of a bracelet on his left arm. He makes his way to the nearest town, controlled by the gruff cattle rancher Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) and his uppity son Percy (Paul Dano), whose favorite pastime is terrifying the community at large and in particular the local bartender (Sam Rockwell) and his wife (Ana de la Reguera).
It’s not long before Jake endears himself to the locals, among them the soused preacher (Clancy Brown), the woman with a secret (Olivia Wilde), and, naturally, the sheriff (Keith Carradine) by punching out Percy, and not long after that that his identity is revealed, and he’s locked up. Still less longer, the aliens arrive, capture a handful of significant townsfolk, and everyone’s differences are set aside as they form a posse to recover the abductees. ‘round about this time, Jake discovers that his bracelet is able to sense the aliens and, better yet, can blow ‘em up real good.
You get your big explosions, your shootouts, your stars, your CGI creepy-crawlies and gooey deaths, but there’s something missing: fun.
For such a goofy concept and cheerfully blunt title, the tone is surprisingly serious. The characters take a few precious moments to joke around and get to know each other, but Favreau continually insists that the stakes are real. Fair enough, but when the focus is on the effects rather than the characters, it’s hard to get on board; and if you see one gooey death, you’ve seen them all.
This is a movie that all but screams for cheesy practical effects, or at least a sense of humor. And I can’t imagine that Craig and Ford weren’t cast with an eye toward their previous roles as action icons James Bond and Indiana Jones. But those franchises were tinged with wit and charm (who can forget poor Yaphet Kotto being pumped full of helium until he explodes in Live and Let Die?) that relished all the sordid histories and tics of its heroes and villains.
Favreau makes use of his stars’ preceding work, but he doesn’t build on it. Craig’s Lonergan is the standard rough-and-tough hero whose defining character trait is elevating the act of disarming his foes to a kind of martial art. He’s convincing, and the first half hour has the makings of a pretty damn good western. It’s only after the aliens arrive that John Ford takes a back seat to Michael Bay.
Similarly, the extent of playfulness in Harrison Ford’s Colonel Dolarhyde is limited to his last name (he’s a cattle rancher—get it?). Say what you will about Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, at least Ford effortlessly slipped back into the role of Indy; as Dolarhyde, this is one of the worst performances of his career. Accent aside, Ford’s most convincing when he’s playing the part of an actor who doesn’t want to be there, and given the meager interest in fleshing out his character, you can’t really blame him.
But maybe this isn’t a movie where the characters really matter, so here’s another point to consider: Why does Lonergan have the bracelet? I know the movie explains how he got it, but doesn’t giving the heroes some alien technology to fight with kind of invalidate the point? That is, if you’re going to make a big deal about it being Cowboys who fight the aliens, and then make it so that the only way to beat the aliens is by using their own technology, then was the setting really necessary?
On the other hand, it does stay true to its setting by showing how old-school Cowboys would fight against aliens (though it leads to another question: Are the aliens bulletproof or not? Sometimes they are, sometimes they’re not). So, again, it more or less balances out.
And yet, Favreau thankfully avoids the incessant and endless plotting that made Iron Man 2 almost unwatchable. Cowboys and Aliens is easy to follow, and well paced. You’re never far from the next big action sequence, and they’re charged with enough adrenaline that you won’t be disappointed. Again, it’s not a bad movie, it just does the bare minimum to justify its title. At least it found to explain why Olivia Wilde looks like a cat.