Director John Favreau basically goes bug nuts with Cowboys & Aliens, taking two genres—Westerns and alien invasions—mashing them together, and somehow getting the crazy thing to work on an entertaining level.
It doesn’t hurt that Favreau has populated the cast with one major talent after another. In what is surely one of the year’s greater casts, the film features Harrison Ford, Daniel Craig, Sam Rockwell, Adam Beach, Olivia Wilde, Paul Dano and Keith Carradine. Not a weak link in this bunch.
It also helps that Favreau proves adept at both genres. The movie is a strong, fine-looking Western, and the invading aliens are dark, hostile, effectively scary creations. All in all, this is an experience as good as it is strange, and a welcomed change of pace in a summer rife with superhero epics and sex comedies.
When a dirty cowboy (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the desert with a strange metallic bracelet on his wrist, he has no recollection of where he is, or even his name. A series of events leads him to a jail cell awaiting the arrival of a grouchy cattle baron (Ford) coming to retrieve his misbehaving son (Dano). While in the midst of a prison transfer, some strange lights appear in the sky, alien laser cannons start firing, and Craig’s strange metallic brace activates and starts blowing things up.
The Old West is being invaded by aliens searching for gold, and they also like to cut up Earthlings and check out their insides. There are exciting chase scenes in this film featuring prominent cast members getting roped by the aliens, dragged up into the sky and behind racing spacecrafts. It’s a bizarre and unsettling image, and Favreau repeats it often.
Cowboys & Aliens surprised me in how void of humor it is. I’m not saying this is a totally bad thing, but I did expect something a little goofier than the final product. This is actually a very dark, somber movie in which no cast member appears safe and anybody could go at anytime. It plays out more like a horror film than it does your typical Hollywood Summer Blockbuster.
As for its willingness to mash-up genres in nutty fashion, I’ll put it right alongside From Dusk Till Dawn, which famously pitted a vampire plot against a crime-spree road movie. I, for one, love it when a director does something insane like this.
Harrison Ford is quite good as the weathered cowboy with a nasty surface, yet some deep heart underneath. Ford is right at home in a Western, so much so that he has already signed on to play an aged Wyatt Earp for one of his next films. Craig, who has the most screen time in the film, looks good standing next to Ford. Admittedly, I had trouble picturing him as a cowboy when his casting was announced, but he does a decent American accent and looks good in chaps. He’s as credible a cowboy as he is a James Bond.
Rockwell, one of my favorite actors, is perfection as the saloon owner grieving for his alien-abducted wife (Ana de la Reguera). Rockwell is that rare actor who can play both sinister and meek. Dano gets to play mean and reckless with his Percy, a loose cannon shooting up the town and acting all badass. That is, until he takes a knee to the nuts, and he reveals the quivering, cowardly boy underneath.
Cowboys & Aliens is fairly disposable stuff and isn’t a film you’ll need to see again after viewing it once. Maybe it’s time for Mr. Favreau to step away from the big budget blockbusters for a stretch and get back to some smaller fare like his wonderful Elf.
I’m not saying I don’t want Favreau blowing things up real good in the future—I just want him to make me laugh again relatively soon. I’m selfish that way.