Film Review – Cowboys & Aliens
If James Bond and Jason Bourne had a baby and he grew up in the Old West…if Han Solo and Harrison Ford’s curmudgeonly character from Morning Glory had a baby and he grew up in the Old West…if any alien adventure movie had a baby with Hollywood’s version of the Old West…Every way I try to sum up some element of director Jon Favreau’s summer adventure Cowboys & Aliens, which opens today, seems to involve having elements we’ve already seen in other films crash together.
I shouldn’t be surprised, really; it’s right there in the title. This thing & that thing. Together again for the first time. Still, the combination of familiar pieces in a fresh way can actually lead to originality—sometimes you think you’re just getting a buddy comedy mashed with a zombie film, and you’re really getting Shaun of the Dead. Though Cowboys & Aliens delivers on the title in that we get to see a lot of both, and plenty of fighting between them, we don’t reach the levels of either surprise or giddy glee that I hoped to see from a film with this title. (And if you’re hoping to see an alien in a cowboy hat…well, it’s a good thing Paul already happened this year.)
We open on Daniel Craig waking up on the ground, out in the middle of nowhere, dirty, bleeding from his side, and very confused about the giant, crazy metal bracelet on his wrist. We’ve got an amnesiac on our hands, folks. Soon enough we also find that he’s an effortless-ass-kicking amnesiac, like all the best ones in cinema. And, as a bonus, he may just be a wanted criminal, too. If only they’d thrown in a government conspiracy, we’d have hit the trifecta!
The man with no memory rides into a small town, where he semi-befriends a preacher who sews up that odd-looking wound, then quickly runs afoul of the local entitled jerk, Percy (Paul Dano; and isn’t Percy the perfect name for an entitled jerk?). Percy’s father is the no-nonsense-almost-to-the-point-of-insanity cattle rancher Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford; and another great character name), whose money basically runs the town. Before a proper showdown can happen between daddy Dolarhyde and the amnesiac over the treatment of Percy, alien ships arrive. They blast through the town, kidnap a few people with crazy alien lassos, and that bracelet…it starts doing stuff. Quicker than you can spit, it’s time to round up a posse and go after those extra-terrestrial assholes, with the bracelet as the main weapon against them.
I haven’t read the source material for this film, the Platinum Studios comic book by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, but I was struck by the overall dearth of humor here. The laughs we do get are mostly cheap ones, like when an insufferable character such as Percy gets hit in the face, and can be seen coming a mile away. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with seeing Old West Bond knee a jerk in the nuts, but I would have liked something more to come along with it. It made me wonder a bit how much of the delightful tone of the first Iron Man film came from Robert Downey, Jr. forcing it to exist, rather than Favreau’s intention. Perhaps Favreau isn’t solely to blame, though; it’s never a good sign to see a script with six credited writers in either story or screenplay designations, and that’s not counting Rosenberg for the comic. I don’t care if one them is Damon Lindelof. Too many cooks, etc.
Still, much of the material is elevated by great players in the supporting cast, men I like to see in just about any posse: Sam Rockwell, Keith Carradine, Clancy Brown, Walton Goggins. Unfortunately, our token female with more than a handful of lines comes in the form of Olivia Wilde and her blindingly white teeth, her character Ella brandishing a gun unabashedly and obviously harboring some secrets. I am not a fan of Wilde, who is utterly free of charisma from my perspective. It’s not that she does a particularly bad job; she says her lines and gives her meaningful looks alright. There’s just nothing else there. And when you’re asking her to play off of the man who is Bond, who makes the act of walking into a charisma-oozing event, she’s not going to come out looking like a star.
In the end, we’re not given much to hold on to in this film except the very fact that it’s cowboys and aliens. And once the final dusty fight begins, even that doesn’t really set the film apart—they fought big monsters in the desert with shotguns in Tremors, too. It’s fun to watch Ford and Craig together, but the relationship between their characters is nothing remarkable; in fact, for most of the characters the story hits satisfying if borderline cliché beats, and relies too much on our attachment to the actors to get us to care about the characters. Decent entertainment that’s mostly forgettable once you leave the theater, it’s two hours on one level, without the kick into another gear that we’re hoping for.
Final Grade: B-