COWBOYS AND ALIENS ARE, SURPRISINGLY, A MATCH MADE IN HEAVEN
I miss movies like this, where cowboys are real men who drink hard and shoot even faster and aliens are real monsters that don’t make that one stupid mistake that ends the entire species. Intelligence. That’s what I miss. I’m not sure if stupidity has become a lazy writer’s crutch or a director’s handicap on solving story problems, but it has become far too much of a given in far too many Hollywood flicks. For once, it’s nice to see a crisply-scripted action-adventure where the excitement meter is on maximum and no lazy writing occurs.
We start off with a mysterious man (Daniel Craig) waking up in the desert with no memory and a strange clamp on his left wrist. But the man isn’t wimpy, that we know, for he beats three men to death before the 5-minute mark. He then makes his way to a little town nearby called Absolution, where he meets the town’s preacher (Clancy Brown), the bartender at the saloon (Sam Rockwell), and Percy (Paul Dano), the rowdy son of the town’s major businessman, Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). Percy goes around shooting the town up for some fun, but the stranger doesn’t much care for that. The fistfight ends up getting a deputy shot in the shoulder, which gets both the stranger and Percy put in prison.
Up to this point, this is an excellently-told western, which mysterious characters and confrontations for power. Now we get to the aliens part of the plot. The town figures out that the mysterious stranger is really a wanted man by the name of Jake Lonergan, a murdering bandit. But before they can use this knowledge on Jake, aliens attack the town and begin grabbing random people (including Percy and the bartender’s wife). Right around this time, Jake’s cuff transforms to a laser weapon and he shoots down one of the alien ships.
Upon seeing Jake’s power, Dolarhyde decides to refrain from shooting the bandit and instead gather up a posse with Jake at the lead to hunt down the aliens (or “demons,” as they call them) and get their people back. On the way, they meet a woman (Olivia Wilde) with the key to Jake’s past, Indians, and the power behind the menacing creatures they face.
Like “Horrible Bosses” was for comedy, Jon Favreau’s “Cowboys and Aliens” is my ideal concept for a western. I love cowboys. I love aliens. I love the cast, especially Harrison Ford, Sam Rockwell, and Clancy Brown. I love the writers, specifically Damon Lindelof (“Lost” co-creator). With this kind of star power and basic mash-up premise, it would have taken a horrible script to make it uninteresting. Thankfully, the writers’ approach to the project is exactly the way it should be and Favreau brings the same freshness and excitement he gave “Iron Man.”
This movie is, first and foremost, a western – and a pretty good one, at that. The actors – from Daniel Craig to Harrison Ford to Sam Rockwell – are perfectly cast and look absolutely authentic in the rustic setting of the wild west with their leather boots and six-shooters. Craig’s careworn look of intense glumness that can swiftly transform into deadly intent makes him as fascinating of a cowboy as Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name. Ford has made a recent living out of playing the stunt-capable grumpy grandpa, and that attitude works to grand effects with his character as the colonel. These men actually feel like real cowboys, the ones who we cheered on from “Unforgiven” and every other Clint Eastwood phenomenon. Cowboys, when done right, have always been the kings of cool, and – for a PG-13 film – their inherent violence and power remains intact without feeling cheapened or limited.
The science-fiction of the story works in making the western aspect more intriguing, but it is fairly weak when considered in and of itself. The aliens are bland and their actions are trivial outside of the incredible action sequences. But then, it isn’t the new technology, the spaceships, or the aliens that hold our interest – it is the cowboys and their attempt to tackle a power far more capable than them.
I’ve always been more of a science-fiction fan than a western one, but “Cowboys and Aliens” has shown me the broad capabilities in which the average western can soar. While the science-fiction elements aren’t as entertaining or as riveting as the cowboy ones, the balance must be taken into account.
There are, as you would expect, some questions unanswered at the end. But enough information was given to make us not really care too much about them. The mash-up delivers more than I expected it to, and the several main character characterizations are a very pleasant surprise in how they are better than most seen in either genre. Daniel Craig’s Jake has surprising nuance for the stereotypical tough guy and Harrison Ford’s Dolarhyde shows a much-needed growth from the mean gunslinger to a sympathetic father figure.
Completely engrossing from the mysterious beginning to the rousing finale, “Cowboys and Aliens” delivers a first-class western that brings with it some neat sci-fi elements. The result is a fantastic way to spend two hours, all of which I don’t regret a second.