I’m generally a big fan of westerns, and I’ve been known to dabble in the science fiction genre from time to time. So on paper, Jon Favreau’s latest Cowboys and Aliens is a perfect fit. While I can definitely come to appreciate the general ridiculousness of it all and end up having a blast with it as the fun late summer film it is, the abundance of hands tweaking the script turns out being one of the movie’s biggest struggles. It’s not the best execution of a solid premise, but it manages to have enough fun thanks to a steady director’s hand to make it worth seeing on entertainment value alone. I think it’s fair to assume I don’t have to spend too much time explaining the premise of the movie. Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the middle of the desert, remembering nothing about who he is, where he’s from, or what the mysterious alien weapon on his wrist is. Whenever he enters into the town Absolution, he quickly runs into a crew of simple western folk, including local town mogul/cattle rancher Dollarhyde (Harrison Ford). Long story short, aliens show up, destroy half the town and kidnap their loved ones in one really long, really cool action sequence. I have to give the movie credit, with what citizens the aliens do kidnap, it’s left with a really notable cast. Sure Olivia Wilde’s really just plodding along through the whole film, but there are a few amazing performances brought by a few remarkable actors. The ever-reliable Sam Rockwell makes the “background” character Doc really shine with some fine charm, and both Clancy Brown and Keith Carradine fill in a beefy supporting cast. However as any of the movie’s posters or trailers would tell you, the real stars are Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig, Indiana Jones/Han Solo and James Bond themselves. Harrison Ford’s pretty much playing Harrison Ford here, growling his lines out and still portraying the cantankerous old man we love like the forlorn, grumpy grandfather in our own lives. I couldn’t help but giggle though at how much fun the movie has with the fact that Harrison Ford’s in it. There’s a solid 15 seconds of the movie where it’s just Ford’s character slowly turning his head and speaking dialogue where we can’t see his face, coming to reveal the cinematic legend we all know he is. Daniel Craig also makes a good impact on the screen as our titular hero Lonergan, proving to us in multiple sequences he’s one of the most indisputable action stars of our time. That being said much like a lot of Favreau’s Cowboys and Aliens, Lonergan’s a few writing sessions short of a full character. Basically all you learn about him as a character is learned in the trailer. He doesn’t know who he is, where he is, or even why there’s a bounty on his head. I’ve seen the “mysterious hero” archetype played off well before, but here it just feels a little bit like a cop-out for not actually writing personality into the character, but instead just using “he’s brooding and mysterious” as an excuse to withhold too much information from us. Once we do find out about Lonergan and uncover the mystery behind a lot of things going on behind the action in the film, it’s never exactly a poorly executed explanation; it just leaves something to be desired. It’s never lazy, but never really affecting. I almost would have preferred it had Lonergan not had amnesia, but instead started the film off with a clear goal in mind to take down the alien menace and having to convince the town-folk to join him. The same goes for a lot of the other supporting characters. The infamous “first attack scene” at night comes about 15 minutes in when we’ve only gotten a brief glimpse into these peoples’ lives and who they are, so the rest feels a little haphazard because the ground foundation wasn’t exactly assembled with the most care. It’s a lot of fun to watch these two worlds collide and see how these frontier folk react to an intergalactic conflict, but one can only fantasize about what a more emotionally connected, finer written base could have done for it. The first half of the film bounces back and forth between a real bona fide western and a more out-there science fiction movie, but it’s not until the second half when most of the action takes place that the movie really finds its groove thematically and settles into the pure, B-movie fun to be found in a film called “Cowboys and Aliens”. I was a little disappointed to see the first few moments of the film fall into place one after the other in a semi-generic, predictable way. It just sort of felt like it was just a string of unrelated sequences happening one after the other. That being said, once the second half hit, 6 year old me practically reached out at the screen seeing a cowboy just like the little plastic ones I had as a kid firing his six-shooter at a ship the size of a cattle ranch. That childish allure alone is why I think Cowboys and Aliens is worth seeing, despite a few rather large dents in the writing. Jon Favreau’s amusement-centered approach to his films like the first Iron Man and especially the holiday classic Elf was a perfect fit for this property. Favreau also has a keen eye for shooting action, something else that naturally comes in here. He seemed to have as much fun making it and plotting this all out on paper as we’ve had getting to see it all unfold on the screen. Like I said the movie definitely lives up to its B-movie style title, and there are plenty of over-the-top, worlds colliding action set pieces especially in the latter half that exceeded my wildest expectations. The final battle isn’t as epic as I had hoped, but there are plenty of fights sprinkled here and there to quench the oddest of “Aliens fighting Cowboys with the help of the Indians” thirsts. Just coming from an action enthusiasts perspective, it’s neat seeing gunfire get mixed with laser-fire, and chases between starships and horses, it’s definitely something that’s never been toyed with before. Even from a visual design standpoint, Favreau’s got it down pat. The more traditional stuff involving the town of “Absolution” looks pretty standard but still has plenty of faithful, gritty flavor, but I was more interested in how Favreau made his aliens look. All of the spaceship interior stuff has a remarkably grungy and dirty vibe, and even the ships themselves take on a more practical, task-oriented aesthetic that looks great. The aliens themselves (despite some more odd choices involving retractable, miniature arms), look like a cross between a Predator and the District 9 aliens, thankfully crafting a creature that actually looks considerably formidable and extremely frightening, even compared to the rough and gruff cowboys. All in all, I’m not going to remember Cowboys and Aliens for being Jon Favreau’s best movie, or for being the best movie of Summer 2011. It’s like the film equivalent of wish fulfillment. Have I always wanted to see cowboys and aliens square off? Of course I have, what 7-year-old TN kid hasn’t at some point on a Saturday afternoon after Batman went off for the day? Does it come with it’s problems? Yes, the writing’s wobblier than it should be, but hey, you get what you wish for. The film could have benefited a lot from a lot less hands tugging at the script, but as ludicrous as the concept is and as hard as it is to get a movie made nowadays, we should be thankful for every ridiculously-fun-star-studded-clumsily-written-action-flick-based-on-a-crazy-idea we can get.
4 out of 5