Director: John Favreau
Studio: Universal Pictures
A mighty posse of Hollywood gunslingers packed iron, ten-gallon hats and bluster to create the new sci-fi-meets-Old-West hootenanny, Cowboys & Aliens. It’s a shame none of them managed to pack a good story in their saddlebags.
Produced by Steven Spielberg, Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, directed by Jon Favreau and adapted by at least six top screenwriters from Scott Mitchell Rosenberg’s graphic novel, the movie (mis)casts Daniel Craig as a brooding, tough-as-nails stagecoach bandit, a Man With No Memory who finds himself battered, bleeding and inexplicably adrift in 1875 in a struggling Arizona mining town called Absolution. Stitched up by the local doc (Clancy Brown), Craig experiences fleeting flashbacks of the apparent torture of a woman he loved, a melting stack of ill-gotten gold coins and a truckload of clichéd Native American imagery. His past also chases him through some pesky Wanted posters with his picture on them, let alone a scurvy band of tough guys mightily pissed-off that he ran out on them. Craig does about 20 minutes of bland lip-pursing and two-fisted bad-assery before anything much happens.
Our hopes rise as the aliens buzz Absolution in jazzy flying cruise ships apparently left over from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, exploding CGI cattle into fiery smithereens and snatching various townspeople skyward to perform ghastly eviscerations. The space creature attacks throw together Craig with crotchety codger Harrison Ford, a powerful, nasty cattle rancher who dotes on a messed-up punk of a son (Paul Dano) but who mistreats his top ranch hand, a sad-eyed Native American who is kind of semi-adopted son (Adam Beach).
It's fun to see Craig and Ford growl, squint and cuss at each other as required but the story and dialogue they're forced to act out is so simplistic that there’s no real bang or sense of fun in what might have been a massively enjoyable face-off between the iconic 007 and Indy. The plot sidelines Ford from most of the big action stuff, so the heroic whiz-bang stuff is mostly about Craig using his metal arm band weapon to gun down featureless, unoriginal intergalactic beasties who keep knocking cowpokes off horses, all leading the big charge against the renegade beasties.
The movie, which often drags and could hardly be accused of being involving or big fun, is very well-made and there’s enjoyment to be had from some of the performers trying to make the most out of cardboard roles, notably, Sam Rockwell as a spooked saloon owner, Keith Carradine as the local sheriff, Walton Goggins as one of Craig’s old gang members and Olivia Wilde amusingly out of place as a gun-toting frontierswoman who may be from another world. As B-movie homages with A-movie budgets go, Cowboys & Aliens isn’t terrible, exactly, just terribly routine.
About the Author
Playboy Contributing Editor Stephen Rebello has written many Playboy Interview and 20 Questions features. He is the author of such books as the notorious Bad Movies We Love (with Edward Margulies) and Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, the latter of which has inspired a dramatic feature film set for production in 2012. His most recent Playboy Interviews include Josh Brolin and Cameron Diaz.