REVIEW: Great Title, Cool Idea, But Cowboys and Aliens Crash-Lands
The B-movie marquee title of Cowboys and Aliens suggests a picture that's more irreverent, imaginative, and fun than the turgid movie that stands behind it. Rather than goosing the Western and sci-fi genres into the ring for a showdown, Jon Favreau's follow-up to the Iron Man franchise takes a pretty radical structural shortcut: Replace the Indians in a classic, mix-'em-up Western with jacked-up, gold-greedy aliens. What's most disappointing about the raucous but ultimately cumbersome result is the feeling -- which only progresses as the improbable posse at the center of the film closes in on its intergalactic enemy -- that Cowboys and Aliens may just as easily have been Cowboys and Zombies, or Werewolves, or Wall Street Time Travelers Venturing into the Past for Capital.
The stranger who rides into town is a wanted man by the name of Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig). Like the Inuit and their many words for "snow," Jake has a thousand squinty faces and they all mean "Bugger off." He arrives in an Arizona outpost just as Percy (Paul Dano), the callow son of bigwig local rancher Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), is throwing his weight around, and a hubbub ensues. A shopkeeper named Doc (Sam Rockwell) demonstrates his fair but essentially timid nature, and his pretty, vulnerable Latina wife (Ana de la Reguera) looks pretty and vulnerable. Jake and Percy are about to be carted away when mean old Woodrow rolls up (along with his adoring Apache surrogate son, played beautifully by Adam Beach) and fingers Jake as the thief of his stash of gold. Meanwhile, local yet otherworldly talent Ella (Olivia Wilde) toes the dirt behind the sheriff's wagon, trying to catch Jake's eye and continue her inquiry into the crazy robo-bracelet fused to his wrist.
And then unto this perfectly functional array of clichés is rained an aerial, alien attack. It's not a subtle enemy, and the novelty of the players' stunned reaction to the ambush feels like a poor trade for intrigue, suspense, or signs of a playful intelligence behind the curtain. The aliens begin picking off individuals for reasons that remain unclear, and the townspeople band together to try and find them. With no memory of who he is, how he came to sport the bracelet, or why he keeps flashing back to a pretty brunette on her back, Jake -- having discovered the awesome, obliterative powers of his magical cuff -- agrees to lead the quest into the desert. Craig wears the black hat well and seriously, which means it's up to Favreau to set the character into some sort of comic relief, as well as make the most of the actor's striking physicality. A shyness on both scores drags the style down to the perfunctory level of the story. The three leads especially are tremendously game -- Ford and Wilde give life to lines that deserve much less -- but wind up, against the odds of signing onto a movie called Cowboys and Aliens, sticking to the straight and narrow.
Five writers are credited for the screenplay and three for the story (Iron Man writers Mark Fergus and Kawk Ostby contributed to both). Even the source material -- a 2006 comic -- was conceived by producer and comic-to-movie studio magnate Scott Mitchell Rosenberg and then written by two others. A hefty roll call is hardly unusual, especially with summer popcorn fare like this, but in this case the lack of a unifying vision shadows the players through their desert march like a mean, starved, and supremely bored coyote. By contrast, Sngmoo Lee's recent western meets wuxia extravaganza The Warrior's Way has the abundance of heart and humor needed to carry off something new. Wilde and Craig do some sexual gasping over their respective wounds, and are as sweet together as Ford and Beach are, a respite from the more gruesome of the action sequences. Even there, the last-minute kills get old quickly, and despite gathering the right elements (including Jake's old band of outlaws) the group doesn't cohere into a viable dynamic.
Some half-hearted references are made to what the gooey-chested aliens might represent -- the white man, say the Apache tribe the group stumbles upon; the Nazis, says a fleeting shot of purloined gold watches and teeth -- but in truth they are the least interesting part of the story, no matter how much noise Favreau makes when they come around. They made the title anyway, which remains little more than a pretty cool idea.