I may be in the minority here but I love westerns. Their mythical vision of the American Old West with cowboys, Indians and outlaws roaming the vast rural landscapes of the American frontier fighting over good and evil is as close as Americans will ever get to their own fantasy. Though the last couple of decades have been a dead zone of sorts for the genre, every now and then, a western will crop up and breath life into the genre for a few more years. The Coen brothers’ highly enjoyable Oscar-nominated hit True Grit, which opened last December, was the last one to do that while earlier this March, Gore Verbinksi’s wonderful Rango widened the genre to younger audiences. I had previously stated that if both succeeded at the box office, Jon Favreau’s Cowboys & Aliens would be the icing on the cake to bring the genre back into the box office limelight. Alas, that cake is going to have to wait because Cowboys & Aliens is no icing, it’s char!
I really wanted to like Cowboys & Aliens – I really did. It was one of my most anticipated movies of the summer. It boasted a high concept that I’m certain made many screenwriters in Hollywood envious. Moreover, it’s a team-up of James Bond and Indiana Jones, directed by Jon Favreau (Iron Man), written by the guys behind Lost and the best Star Trek movie in decades, and produced by Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer! That’s a team any movie would die for. But with the screenplay being attributed to six screenwriters, I should have known better. Anytime a movie is credited with more than 4 screenwriters, it means that there was some serious butchering taking place on behalf of the studio. What should have been a kick-ass movie about cowboys versus aliens turns into a colossal mess of a movie without any focus whatsoever.
For its first half hour, Cowboys & Aliens lives up to its high-powered credentials. It kicks off with a man (Daniel Craig) jolting to consciousness in the middle of the desert. Barefoot, bloody and armed with a photograph of a mystery woman and a bizarre bracelet that he can’t unbuckle, the stranger stands with no recollection as to where or who he is. After disarming and killing a trio of drifters without batting a lid (Jason Bourne-style), he rides into the nearest town, fittingly named Absolution.
After humiliating Percy Dolarhyde, the spoiled son (Paul Dano) of Col. Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), the town’s gangster, the stranger is recognized by the county sheriff John Taggart (Keith Carradine) as Jake Lonergan, a wanted thief and murderer. Soon, Lonergan befriends a strange woman named Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde) at the town bar owned by the meek Doc (Sam Rockwell) before getting arrested by Taggart. When the elder Dolarhyde storms into town demanding the release of his son, also in custody of Taggart, and the head of Lonergan, the drama starts getting interesting. Unfortunately, that’s when the aliens descend into town and unleash hell on the town, killing many and fishing others into the sky to do God knows what with them. Now it’s up to the town’s remaining people to band together and rescue their kin before the aliens destroy all of them.
The primary issue with Cowboys & Aliens is its abysmal script that was suffers from having too many cooks. Because of this, the tone of the film is all over the place. First the movie is dead serious, then it goes in for jokes, then it becomes a quasi monster movie, then in one of worst twists in recent memory, the film switches gears to a random fantasy land film, complete with hummingbirds, magic oils that cure amnesia and magical women from outer space. Finally it settles on generic action movie mode at the climax when the heroes who are getting mutilated by the aliens suddenly find some extraordinary courage within themselves to butcher the superior alien species with their silly rifles. It’s almost as if they were all injected with Captain America’s super-soldier serum. Then there’s an insulting scene set within the aliens’ spaceship that plays like a first-person shooter videogame. More ridiculous is the reason for the aliens’ presence on the planet. It’s so inept that even one of the film’s leading characters scoffs when he hears about it. If this were a light-hearted film in the vein of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, all of this would have been fair game but Favraeau’s film is dead serious. As for the aliens themselves… they’re embarrassingly lame.
Not helping matters are the abysmally-written characters/stereotypes which the screenwriters seem to have picked out of some Westerns for Dummies guidebook. There’s the mysterious loner (Craig), the grumpy old landlord (Ford), the scripture-quoting preacher (Clancy Brown), the meek doctor/barman (Rockwell), the sweet little orphan (Noah Ringer), the headstrong woman (Wilde), the honorable sheriff (Carradine), the cowardly son of the landlord (Dano), the brave Indian (Adam Beach) etc… etc. If you’ve ever watched a western, you’ll have no trouble predicting how things pan out for all these characters.
Just about the only things that Cowboys & Aliens has in its favor, other than its strong first half hour and that cool hand bracelet gadget, is the performance of Daniel Craig and Matthew Libatique’s gorgeous cinematography. As the man-with-no-name, Craig exudes cool and confidence – this in spite of all the ridiculousness around him. There’s a reason why he’s James Bond – and that’s because he’s a badass! Libatique, who recently scaled new heights with his work on Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan makes the look and feel of the film authentic to the period. This is a damn fine looking movie.
As for everyone else? Favreau knows how to direct an action sequence but there’s no way anyone could have saved this mess. Ford, who hasn’t given a halfway-decent performance in at least a decade, still looks like he’d rather be suckling on Calista Flockhart’s bones than acting. The versatile Rockwell is wasted in role that insults his talents while Wilde does well looking sexy.
Cowboys & Aliens takes a fantastic premise and a very good cast and wastes them on a movie that is one stuttering mess. After a strong half-hour during which all the pieces are put in place, the film crashes and burns when the aliens hit town as director Jon Favreau and his team of six credited screenwriters (plus God knows how many more script doctors) struggle to maintain a steady tone. As a fan of the western genre, this is one tragic disappointment.