Director: Jon Favreau
Cast: Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, Paul Dano, Clancy Brown, Keith Carradine
Plot: An outlaw (Craig) with no memory and a strange object trapped to his wrist, wanders into a nearby town. That’s when things getting even weirder…
Cowboys & Aliens instantly sounds like a B Movie offering, a movie made to be enjoyed at a purely superficial value. Hollywood parodies of the B Movie genre can go either way. Sometimes it is pleasant having a brain dead script about giant spiders or mummified serial killers but with a budget that gives the joke the kick it needs and actors who can deliver the performances needed to make the cringe-worthy story work. At the same time, the upping of star power and budget can often up the expectations too, so when a movie titled Cowboys & Aliens is about, well… cowboys shooting aliens… we sometimes get an unsatisfying taste in the mouth, while producers scratch their head. “We gave them what they asked for!” a writer shrugs, while his boss scans over the latest review.
Cowboys & Aliens hits the right balance. It both entertains at face value, but offers interesting characters for those wanting to scratch a little further beneath the surface. With a film like this, we all gather wondering what the aliens are going to look like, but the biggest surprise on offer here is the cowboy side of things. In fact, as the movie opens slowly, introducing the setting we are going to end up tearing into with some glorious action later, we are impressed with how authentic and real the Wild West aspect is. Tonally it is all there, with the cartoonish stereotypes, plucked straight from a John Wayne movie, but with the nuanced touch of Favreau’s direction and some talented actors at the helm. Harrison Ford is a joy to watch and if this had been a straight Western, minus the alien threat, he would easily be the piece’s villain. He is the dastardly mobster, who muscles in on the mayor’s job, so the town of Absolution ends up getting unofficially run by him. When Daniel Craig’s hero without his memory wanders into his path, Ford uses his manipulative power to make his life hell. Harrison Ford is amazing, tearing into his lines, spitting one-liners and chewing scenery. It begs the question of since when has Ford been allowed to play a decent bad guy? Seeing as mid-career Ford began cutting and pasting his hero roles, it is a shame he was never tempted to wander over to the dark side to try something new. As the movie’s first half an hour only hints at supernatural going-ons, we begin to settle into the Western nature of the film, not in any rush for the aliens to be introduced. It has been so long since we’ve had a decent one that Favreau suddenly awakens an urge to see a movie we hadn’t realised we wanted to see – a Western that was less grit and more fun. In fact, it begins to get downhill the second the aliens show up.
Not straight away, mind. There is some fun to be had with the foreshadowing. Daniel Craig plays the local outlaw, wanted for hanging. However, after being abducted, he wakes up with no memory of who he actually is, causing him to wander into a town that wants him dead. Craig’s amnesic has a bit more charisma than Damon’s Bourne and his inability to remember his crimes makes him a bad guy we can side with. Sure, he is a killer, but we only ever see the side of him that is hunting redemption for something he cannot even recall doing. In many ways, he is the perfect Western anti-hero. There is a meaty mystery to get our teeth into, as we begin to wonder where the alien side of things is going to come in, especially with the enigmatic pretty lady, Olivia Wilde, wandering around town, clearly the key to everything. The alien stuff just hangs in the background, enticing the viewer into sticking with the movie, while Favreau allows the Western setting to breathe. However, as soon as the aliens burst onto the screen, things get messy. There is just a little too much CGI and the finale is clearly set on being the blockbuster event of the year. The story drags on just that little bit too long, searching for exposition we didn’t really need and shoe-horning in some apache characters, as though Favreau is determined to get as many Western themes as possible in. By the end of the movie, we are a little ready to move on. There is a sense Cowboys & Aliens would have worked better as a more low-key affair with the action staying in that small Western town and the plot being cut down a little. Less is sometimes more. Aliens don’t need an extensive back story; as soon as they show up, looking to kill, we are game for some extra-terrestrial killing fun. It feels a shame to condemn this film, because it does constantly boast moments that impress and great pieces of inspiration, yet I wasn’t hooked throughout the third act.
Final Verdict: Cowboys & Aliens is the best Western in a while, but the second half is a tad too ambitious, turning the film into the usual blockbuster smash-em-up.