Movie Review: ‘Cowboys and Aliens’
If you can get past the loopy premise that high-tech aliens land in the old Wild West (circa 1873), there is plenty to enjoy in Cowboys and Aliens. Helmed by Jon Favreau, the film meshes two distinct genres into one action film that stumbles a bit, but deserves a look.
An intriguing opening sequence begins with a disoriented man (Jake, played by Daniel Craig) waking up in the middle of the desert with a bizarre wrist cuff and no clue where he is, or who he is. Shortly thereafter, a small gang on horseback accosts him, and he wastes no time establishing that he is well versed in hand-to-hand combat. He quickly makes mincemeat of the men and dons the clothing of one of the unfortunates. The scene reminded me of The Bourne Identity, because Jake looks just as surprised as anyone to find that he was able to dispatch of the gang so efficiently.
He arrives at a small western town on horseback, and finds himself thrust front and center into controversy when he intervenes with a spoiled brat terrorizing the town with a gun. That man is Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano), whose father practically owns the town. Though the townsfolk are happy to see Percy temporarily hamstrung, they fear the repercussions that they will certainly incur when Percy’s father catches wind of the altercation.
Later that night, daddy Dolarhyde (Woodrow, played by Harrison Ford) trots into town on his steed, ready to roll some heads. But a flash of light in the sky turns into a full-blown alien assault, and before the evening is over, a small army of spaceships has abducted a large portion of the population. It doesn’t take too long before sworn enemies join forces for the sole purpose of retrieving their loved ones, and so the adventure begins. It is quickly recognized that the mysterious stranger in their wake (Jake) might be instrumental in their mission, especially after his wrist cuff proves more than handy as a weapon during the alien assault. Woodrow begrudgingly acquiesces to the stranger in the hope of finding his son Percy. Also along for the ride is Ella (Olivia Wilde), who seems to have a special interest in where Jake came from.
The film is most enjoyable when it plays as a western. Every time the aliens made an appearance, I died a little inside and lost interest. The action sequences involving their spaceships are quite fun, but when they are relegated to land I found them boring. The creatures themselves reminded me of a bulked up version of the Rango cartoon character, with the head of a chameleon attached to a muscular body. One thing that sets them apart from most movie aliens are some truly creepy arms that emerge from their body cavity when they are getting ready to snatch someone.
Craig is a real badass, and gives a great performance. He carries the bulk of the film, and delivers the best action scenes. Ford is relegated to second fiddle, but works well in the role. He’s much more in his element on a horse and wearing a cowboy hat than he has been in roles of late. He’s cinematic comfort food, and the audience I saw the film with clearly ate it up. Wilde is sufficiently feisty in her role, and Sam Rockwell provides for some comedic relief as Doc, the town saloon proprietor.
Now, back to that loopy premise. It’s not that I can’t reconcile the two genres, but in truth the story leaves a lot to be desired. It’s a clear case of too many cooks in the kitchen, never a good thing when it comes to a screenplay. There are no fewer than eight writers credited with the story. Yikes. You would think with that many eyes on the script it would be tight and well defined, but you would be wrong. Simple plot points are simply ignored. For some reason, the aliens have invaded earth to acquire gold, but no one ever bothers to tell us why they want the gold. That’s a glaring oversight, and it is a huge hole in the plot. There are also some pacing issues, as the film drags a bit in the middle third. It feels overly long at a two hour run time, and it shouldn’t.
Cowboys and Aliens is an interesting idea that wasn’t perfectly executed, but fans of Ford and Craig should be satisfied. The film suffices as summer popcorn fare, but it could have been so much more.