Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Cowboys & Aliens

If absolutely nothing else, Cowboys & Aliens has two things going for it: a title that accurately describes the plot, and a title that sounds stupid enough to make many people not want to watch this movie.  Take heed with this movie title; if you don't want to watch a movie about cowboys fighting aliens, then this is not the film for you.  I, however, happen to generally enjoy Jon Favreau and Daniel Craig, and I keep hoping for Harrison Ford to make up for the last Indiana Jones movie, so I opted to watch this sci-fi/western mash-up.

A man (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the desert, wounded and alone, with no memory of himself or how he got there.  All he knows is that he has a weird thing clamped to his left wrist.  Oh, and he remembers that he's a bad-ass, because he kills the hell out of a trio of bounty hunters.  Our man with no name finds a name (Jake, as it turns out) when he moseys on over to the nearest town, Absolution.  The town is a washed-up mining spot that never had much luck with mining.  The town is still kicking only because old man Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) uses it as a base for his cattle operation.  This tends to put him and his men --- especially his spoiled rotten and frequently drunken son, Percy (Paul Dano) --- above the law.  Well, Jake publicly humiliates Percy while Percy attempts to publicly humiliate the local saloon owner (Sam Rockwell), which leads to Percy accidentally shooting a deputy.  Percy gets locked up, ready to be sent to the big city to be arraigned.  Jake is also locked up for apparently being a bad, bad man, even if he doesn't remember any of it.  When Dolarhyde hears about Percy's arrest and Jake being in town, he rushes home to confront the sheriff.  A surprisingly interesting battle of wills commences, until aliens happen.
Two plausible reactions to aliens happening

Yep, the titular aliens appear in flying machines, blow some stuff up, kidnap random people, and kill anybody who gets in their way.  This would make modern men scramble, much less someone from the 1870s.  I mean, it would make most men scramble, unless they happen to be Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig.
To broaden the appeal of this film, assless chaps were seriously considered.
Jake's arm clamp/bracelet comes to life around the aliens, and it is a weapon.  Not some wimpy weapon, either; he manages to shoot down one of their ships.  What happens next?  Not surprisingly, everybody teams up to take on the "demons" that have ravaged the town and taken their people.

The acting in this movie is a lot better than it deserves to be.  After all, this is a genre mash-up that, logically, shouldn't work.  It's surprisingly fun, though.  Daniel Craig does his scowling bad-ass thing again; I would have liked to see him show off a little more of his charm, but this is a movie about cowboys fighting aliens, so I guess deep characters are probably not on the menu.  I didn't love Harrison Ford in this movie, but I didn't hate him, either.  In the beginning, he does a pretty good job of playing a bastard, but his performance was missing a crucial extra bit to make it awesome; later, his character softens and falls back into Ford's more comfortable likeable-but-kind-of-gruff territory.  I would have liked to see him enjoy his mean moments more, though.  At least his hat wasn't too reminiscent of Indiana Jones, right?
Are they rebooting the City Slickers franchise?
Sam Rockwell has a bit part in the film, which I was happy to see.  It's not very impressive, though; he plays a weenie.  Adam Beach plays Dolarhyde's semi-adopted son/trusted cowhand and he plays it with as much intensity as you might expect from him; I really wish Beach wasn't the preeminent Native American actor in Hollywood, because his range shows its limits whenever he is asked to do anything more than read lines.  Here, he succeeds in keeping any charisma from accidentally getting on-screen by having his character's most emotional moment (him convincing an Apache chief to follow Dolarhyde) translated by another character.  Walton Goggins was fairly entertaining as a none-too-bright thief, which is just another notch in his belt of unsavory characters.  Keith Carradine was okay as the sheriff, but nothing special.  Similarly, Noah Ringer did a decent job of making googly eyes and looking scared, but his performance was not revelatory.  I did like Clancy Brown's character; for some reason, he seems less evil as he gets older.  I also thought that Paul Dano did a good job as Dolarhyde's insufferable son, who gets hurt just often enough to keep him from getting annoying.  You might also recognize Scottish character actor David O'Hara as Jake's gang-leading nemesis; he's a solid actor that looks mean for a few minutes and then usually dies like he does here.  My biggest problem with the cast was actually with Olivia Wilde as a beautiful stranger.  That's weird, since the kid from The Last Airbender is in this movie, right?  Well, she was okay, I guess, but her flawless complexion, clean hair, and super-white teeth didn't make her the most believable single lady in the Wild West.  I also find it interesting that no men hit on her in this entire film.  I don't ask for a whole lot of realism in my cowboys vs. aliens movies, but she stuck out like a sore thumb.
Where do you get your eyebrows done in a one-horse town?

This is Jon Favreau's  first directorial effort after making blockbusters Iron Man 1 & 2.  How did it turn out?  Well, I have to admit that Favreau could definitely make a good, old fashioned Western if he wanted to.  I was shocked at how engaging I found the alien-free Western scenes.  As for the movie as a whole, well...it's kind of silly.  Luckily, the title clued me in on that possibility, so I wasn't surprised.  I thought the action scenes were pretty good (seeing horses flying in the air is oddly amusing) and I liked how he handled the main actors and characters.  It did seem a little piecemeal, though.  Sure, that makes sense, since you are shoe-horning aliens into a Western, but a lot of the characters felt like they were simply tacked on (the Apaches, the thieves, Adam Beach, etc.) and didn't feel like organic parts of this story.  Favreau made the very best alien/cowboy movie possible, but there was a lot going on in a film that would have benefited from simplicity.  Hell, this might have been a better movie without the aliens.

Overall, Cowboys & Aliens manages to succeed more than a movie of this type (or name) should.  It is an entertaining blend of sci-fi and Westerns, where tough actors get to act tough and we see lots and lots of people get killed by aliens.  Seriously, it seems like a hundred people die, and yet there always appears to be about a dozen or so survivors.  I wouldn't call this a great movie or an unequivocal success, but it is fun and I always like seeing a quality Western, even if it is just in the first fifteen minutes of the movie.  I was hoping for greatness, though, and this film falls a little short --- primarily because the alien plot trampled over the cooler tough guy Western story.  Whatever.  I saw cowboys, I saw aliens, and I saw lots die on both sides.  The movie lived up to its title, at the very least.


  1. I agree taht the acting is the best part of this flick, but all in all I was left more disappointed in it than anything.

    You and I are in complete agreement that this film would have worked better if it were just "Cowboys" and no Aliens.

  2. I wasn't too disappointed, but I had hoped that Favreau would be able to take another idea I was iffy on (because, let's face it, Iron Man 1 could have sucked) and hit a home run. It's not as good as I wanted it to be, but I was still entertained.

  3. I was disappointed by the fact that there was no real actual different or cool things happening here. Just the same kind of generic film we’ve seen come out almost every weekend lately. However, good review!

  4. I think the promising Western at the beginning was different enough to separate it from the pack. What was the last good Western that hit theaters? True Grit? While that was much better than C&A, I was happy to see a decent Western, even if it was only for the first 20 minutes.