Review: Cowboys & Aliens
PLOT: A man (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the desert with no memory, a mysterious gaping wound, and a strange metal bracelet attached to his wrist. He makes his way to a small town in Arizona, which is lorded over by a ruthless cattle baron, Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), and soon discovers that his name is in fact Jake Lonergan, and that he’s a wanted man. However, his past sins are the least of his worries once the town is attacked by alien spaceships, which abduct many of townsfolk, including Dolarhyde’s son. When Lonergan’s metal bracelet turns out to be an alien weapon, Dolarhyde recruits him into a posse tasked with saving the abducted towns folk, and destroying the alien menace.
REVIEW: Sci-fi westerns are a tough thing to pull off, and past efforts, including Barry Sonnenfeld’s infamous WILD, WILD, WEST and Jimmy Hayward’s JONAH HEX, have been disastrous. I’d wager that the real reason those films didn’t work is that the filmmakers involved had no idea how to construct a proper western, thus giving the films a wacky, tongue-in-cheek aesthetic that audiences found repellent.
Luckily, Jon Favreau doesn’t make the same mistake Sonnenfeld and Hayward made and despite the wacky premise, the film takes itself dead serious (or at least as serious as a film about cowboys and aliens can be). What makes COWBOYS & ALIENS really good is that Favreau really seems to understand westerns, an increasingly endangered genre, which is long overdue for a comeback.
When they’re made nowadays, westerns tend to be of the more elegiac fashion (like THE PROPOSITION, or THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD) but Favreau takes a completely different approach, with this being a full-out homage to the adventure-filled westerns of John Ford and Howard Hawks, albeit with aliens.
All the classic archetypes are accounted for in COWBOYS & ALIENS and are embodied perfectly by the top-notch cast. Daniel Craig plays the requisite mysterious stranger, with him seemingly being patterned after Steve McQueen in John Sturges’ THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN or the later NEVADA SMITH, although he also has heavy echoes of Alan Ladd in SHANE. This is a great action role for Craig outside of Bond, and he brings the same dynamic physicality to the role, with lots of fist-fights, stunts, and shoot-em’ ups.
As for Ford, well, as a guy who grew up watching him (as did we all), it’s a treat to see him in another heroic role, with his ornery, but ultimately heroic Dolarhyde having heavy shades of John Wayne in Howard Hawks’ RED RIVER. Ford seems more energized here than he’s been in years and there’s none of the hushed delivery that’s driven me crazy in his last couple of films. Favreau has brought more out of Ford than anybody has in a while.
The rest of the cast is filled out with a bunch of fun, Wild West characters, from Adam Beach’s Indian tracker, to Sam Rockwell’s timid saloon keeper. I especially liked Clancy Brown as the pistol packing reverend, who would have been right at home in any of Hawks’ or Ford’s films (very-Ward Bond-ish).
The cast is rounded out by Olivia Wilde as the mysterious beauty that seems to know more about the aliens than anyone else. I like Wilde a lot and she fits into the whole western-adventure genre quite well, although a twist with her character that happens midway through is probably one of the few things about COWBOYS & ALIENS that didn’t quite strike a chord with me. I also had a bit of a problem with the fact that Noah Ringer, as a boy whose grandfather (the town sheriff, played by Keith Carradine) is among the abductees, is allowed to tag along with a posse that’s riding into certain death. Then again, it’s a fantasy, and I also thought Ringer was quite good (hard to believe this is the same kid from THE LAST AIRBENDER), specifically in his scenes opposite Ford.
Like Favreau’s IRON MAN films, he keeps the action moving at a furious pace, with lots of huge set pieces liberally sprinkled throughout the lean 118-minute runtime. It’s also beautifully shot and thankfully, no 3D!
All in all, COWBOYS & ALIENS is a fun-filled summer blockbuster, anchored by a great cast and solid craftsmanship on the part of Favreau. I hope Favreau is able to revisit the western genre in the future minus the aliens, as it’s a type of film that really needs a comeback. Until then, this will do nicely.
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