Although it is not quite the epic “Indy Meets Bond” adventure that was hyped, Cowboys & Aliens is an entertaining film and fun ride pretty much from start to finish. The film does require the audience to shut the brain off and doesn’t aim to be more than its titles suggests.
The film was directed by Iron Man’s Jon Favreau (who seems very comfortable in this kind of big scope picture) and based on Scott Mitchell Rosenberg’s comic from Platinum Studios. It featured several writers (not always a good sign) including the screenplay skills of Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Mark Fergus (who also penned the screen story), Hawk Ostby (also screen story), and screen story chores by Steve Oedekerk.
It stars Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, Clancy Brown, Paul Dano, Adam Beach, Keith Carradine, Walton Goggins, Noah Ringer and Abigail Spencer.
The movie kicks off with Craig’s Jake Lonergan waking up in the Arizona desert with no idea who he is or how the strange metal device got attached to his arm. A group of scalp hunters gives Craig the chance to show off his ability with a six shooter, and gets him moving on into the town of Absolution. Jake is injured and breaks into a church looking for a way to treat the wound. Instead, he meets the Bible spouting/shotgun wielding Meacham (Brown, who is absolutely great in this movie).
Meacham does his Christian duty and takes care of Jake’s injury as young Percy Dolarhyde (Dano) starts to shoot up the town and cause trouble for Doc (Rockwell). Despite being warned by Nat Colorado (Beach), the town’s sheriff John Taggart (Carradine) locks Percy up after a deputy is shot. He also locks up Jake – who appears to be a criminal and wanted for robbery. Jake comes along somewhat quietly after getting into a bit of trouble in a bar with the equally mysterious Ella Swenson (Wilde).
The film then jumps to some employees of cattle baron Woodrow Dolarhyde (Ford) who have a close encounter of the deadly kind that leaves all but one of the ranch hands dead along with the cattle cooked. Naturally, this angers Woodrow – who has his own unique method of questioning an employee and then firing him. Dolarhyde’s rage gets really heated after Nat shows up and informs him Percy is in jail and that Jake Lonergan (who apparently helped himself to Dolarhyde’s payroll) is in jail with him.
Dolarhyde rides into town (which he considers his) with a posse of his men to take his son back and claim Jake. His in the middle of an argument with Taggart when the aliens arrive to turn the film into a sci-fi flick (even if the characters consider them demons from the Bible for most of the movie).
It appears the aliens are on the planet to mine it for gold and are rounding up people for experiments and other purposes on the trip back. The audience discovers that Jake’s bracelet came from them as he starts blasting their spaceships from the sky.
The film then becomes a rescue mission as Dolarhyde, several of his men, Doc (every western has to have a character named Doc), Ella, Meacham, and Taggart’s grandson Emmett (Ringer) head after the aliens to save the town folk that were taken – including Doc’s wife, Taggart and Percy. Jake refuses to go, but changes his mind after a flashback reveals more of his memory.
The movie drags a bit in the middle as our band of heroes are forced to take shelter in an upside down River Boat; run into a gang of outlaws which were led by Jake(in a scene that screams Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid); and eventually run into a group of Apaches who are tracking the aliens as well after a raid on their village. Along the way, the audience learns Ella has a secret of her own, and Dolarhyde has to put his prejudice aside to team with the Apaches if they have a chance of surviving.
The film moves along at a somewhat predictable pace and ends with a showdown between the cowboys, aliens and Apaches (hey, why were they left off the title anyway?). Instead of feeling epic, this final showdown gets a little silly as the technologically advanced aliens are picked off by arrows and pistols – despite seeming to be so indestructible in the first attack on Absolution.
The battle is also a little too choreographed with lots of telegraphed moments (you knew the kid was going to have to take on an alien and Ford would be involved in coming to terms with his adopted Apache son Nat).
Cowboys & Aliens is a tad clunky at times and not quite as good as the concept first sounded when the trailers rolled before the release. Still, it manages to entertain thanks to its well-rounded cast. Ford and Craig are the stars of the show, but I loved the inclusion of Brown (Highlander and Starship Troopers), Carradine (Deadwood and The Long Riders) and Goggins (The Shield, Predators and Justified).
Ford pretty much just plays his grumpy old man character that he has been bringing to the screen for a while now, but also seems to channel a little of John Wayne from Red River. He doesn’t really do much too fully develop the character, but he probably knows this isn’t a character-driven film.
Craig is extremely good in the film, and brings the same level of intensity he brings to his Bond role. It is a silly premise, but Craig plays it as if it is a serious western. He also seems comfortable in the western genre and I would like to see the actor take on a true film set in the time period.
While important to the film, Wilde doesn’t do much with her character other than look a tad too pretty and polished for the time period and area. Her character’s big reveal was a tad silly to me, but helped give an explanation about who the aliens were and what they were doing on Earth.
The film looks incredible on Blu-ray with the format bringing out lots of details in the production value of the film. The CGI is also well-done with the aliens having a little bit of a low-tech feel (they aren’t quite as advanced as our modern alien attack films), and the creature design having more of monster look than your traditional alien.
It also comes loaded with features that take you into the making of the film and its journey from comic to screen. The features include interviews with Favreau and making of material.
With all the talent in front of and behind the camera, Cowboys & Aliens isn’t as good as it should have been, but the film does manage to entertain. It doesn’t require a major commitment from the audience and does strive to do more than give the viewer a good time with a premise as cheesy as its title suggests.
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