by Coop Cooper
The setup is nothing new. Set in 1873, A man with no name (Daniel Craig) wakes up in a wild west desert with amnesia and a strange bracelet. He runs afoul of an honorable lawman (Keith Carradine) and a ruthless cattle baron (Harrison Ford) who wants his head. Then the aliens attack. Cowboys get blasted and abducted and the Man-With-No-Name suddenly discovers the bracelet on his arm is an alien ray gun. The man teams up with his former enemies and a strange woman (Olivia Wilde) to save the abducted town folk.
Since this seemed like a goofy, high-concept gimmick, I was curious as to why it had attracted A-list heavy hitters like Craig, Ford and “Iron Man” director Jon Favreau. The first half wore on me. The hero kept getting into dire trouble only to have the aliens attack when he most needed the distraction to get away. Once is cheating but when it kept happening, I started to tune out. Then a funny thing happened. After a few twists and turns, backstories for the surviving characters began to surface making it easier to care for them. By the last third of the film, the action was so fierce and the characters became so likeable, it actually made up for the shaky beginning.
Craig intimidates as usual. The guy knows how to kick tail then strike the action figure pose afterwards. Now that the bankruptcy debacle over at MGM studios is resolved, hopefully we will soon see him in some more James Bond films. The jury is still out on Olivia Wilde. She’s pretty to look at but for the first half of the movie, she creeped me out with all her bug-eyed staring and hovering around Craig while uttering cryptic remarks at him. Her character gets more interesting in the second half but at first she came across as annoying and weird. Sam Rockwell once again proves his action chops as a weak saloon owner who must discover his inner warrior to reclaim his abducted wife. Rockwell is one of the most important actors in the independent film scene and I think it’s a matter of time before he wins an Oscar or is cast in a leading A-list Hollywood role. Harrison Ford downright shocked me. He has popped up now and again over the last couple of decades in mediocre Hollywood films, phoning it in like he hardly cares anymore but as cattle baron Woodrow Dolarhyde, his character becomes the most complex in the film. Ford lapses into lazy acting for the first half but near the end he recaptures some of that magic that made him an adventure movie legend. It was great to see Indiana Jones back on the horse again.
As I watched, I wondered why the creators didn’t name it “Cowboys vs. Aliens,” then I remembered what all films with a “vs.” have in common… They are terrible, campy movies. This is no “Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus” here. Director Favreau managed to dial down the camp and present a straightforward, sci-fi action tone that never gets too loopy. It often lapses into the same cliches that plague both sci-fi and western genres but it doesn’t wallow in them. It even adds a few new wrinkles to both. For instance, when the humans learn why the aliens are invading Earth, the explanation fits both the sci-fi and western genres in a unique and clever way.
One aspect I can’t forgive is overwhelming plot holes and lapses in logic. If the 19th century humans are to have any chance against the aliens, certainly it would be that they aliens underestimate them. However, that doesn’t excuse stupidity. The aliens are lousy at detecting a hoard of noisy humans about to attack their stronghold. They also seem to leave doors open and alien weapons lying around everywhere, but when an alien is killed, no humans (other than Craig) think to pick the weapon up and use it? There was also a huge missed opportunity at the end regarding Olivia Wilde’s character that the screenplay sets up and then completely forgets by the conclusion. That’s pretty lazy and I would’ve thought with the veteran string of screenwriters on this project, some of those glaring holes could have easily been remedied.
Regardless of its faults, “Cowboys and Aliens” is a sometimes stupid but often fun and rousing summer action film. If the first half makes you want to saddle up and go for popcorn, plant yourself and give it a chance. The last half is worth it.
Rating: 3 out of 5