…written by eight guys(!), based on the comic book by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, directed by John Favreau, starring Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, and Olivia Wilde.
Pros: Good popcorn summer blend of western and sci-fi genres.
Cons: Paint-by-numbers plot and character arcs right of Screenwriting 101.
Review: In Cowboys and Aliens, you have truth in advertising, and if you’ve seen any of the trailers or other publicity, you know going in this is a genre-blending action adventure movie with big-name leads. It’s pure Hollywood entertainment. Daniel Craig plays the mysterious stranger, Jake, a tough hombre with a strange Iron Man-like bracelet/ray gun on his arm and amnesia. No sooner does Jake wander into town, the find himself obliged to teach the local cattle baron’s drunken son a lesson in manners and runs afoul of the local lawman. It quickly becomes apparent that what Jake can’t remember is he was an outlaw and robber.
Jake meets Ella (Wilde) at the local saloon, who seems to have a keen interest and perhaps some knowledge of the strange bracelet. But the Sheriff gets the drop on Jake and he’s about to be loaded up and sent to Santa Fe when the aforementioned cattle baron, Dolarhyde (Ford) shows up demanding custody of his son. And that’s when the
C.H.U.D.S aliens come at them. The aliens seem intent on capturing some humans with their cool one-alien flying ships, and the only thing that can stop them is Jake’s, weird obviously alien-in-origin bracelet/ray gun.
Instant quest. A number of people, including Dolarhyde, have family abducted. Jake shoots down one of the alien’s ships, and Dolarhyde’s Indian tracker picks up the trail. The posse sets forth. Along the way, Ella will reveal her secrets and help Jake reclaim his memories, Dolarhyde will show he’s not such a mean bastard after all, and the group will run afoul of outlaws and Indians. Plus, big finale set-piece showdown with the aliens.
If you don’t like Westerns and Sci-Fi action movies, you could find yourself annoyed by the lego-like plot and numerous cliches. And the main characters are mostly developed by supporting characters telling us stuff about them rather than through their actions. For example, a little kid comes along with the posse, and his main reason for inclusion are a couple of scenes to show us that Dolarhyde isn’t really such an ass after all. But if you don’t like these genres, you probably shouldn’t go to this film anyway.
John Favreau likes these genres. Like yours truly, he grew up with Star Wars and its heavy Western influences, and movies like Alien, Predator, The Outlaw Josey Wales, and Tombstone. You can definitely see these movies, as well as some of the original Western and Sci-Fi classics in certain scenes of C&A. Favreau is all-in and more than adept at the action sequences and grand set-up scenes.
I particularly enjoyed some of the more subtle shots, like Craig framed in the doorway with the shadow of his hat mostly covering his face as he enters the saloon. Our first view of Harrison Ford, perched on his horse and scowling around at his men and cattle. The quick-draw sequences, the set-ups of the posse riding into the desert. And there’s a whole lotta steeliness going around in this movie. Daniel Craig is one steely dude, with his scowl and piercing glare. Slightly emaciated but steely. He also manages to project a little bit of contrition and sorrow, which makes Jake a lot more likable. Ford, is of course, steely. Gruff and grizzled, but steely. His character has less to do, but he’s obviously trying to channel later-years John Wayne here, and it mostly works.
The aliens are scary (too scary for young kids) and brutal, but they underestimate the humans, which ultimately makes the final battle somewhat plausible. Yes, it’s your typical heart-of-Mordor solution in the end, but that’s OK.
Bottom Line: Enjoyable entertainment if you’re a fan of the two genres. Not a great movie by any means, but it delivers on its premise.