Cowboys and Aliens/2011
Directed by: Jon Favreau
Starring: Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Clancy Brown, Sam Rockwell, Paul Dano, Adam Beach, Walton Goggins, Keith Carradine and Olivia Wilde
The Plot: Arizona Territory… the final frontier. A vicious outlaw wakes up in the middle of nowhere, with a serious case of amnesia and a lump of alien technology wrapped around his left wrist. Was he the victim of an alien gang probe? Or is he a pawn in a galactic plan to conquer Earth circa 1873?
The Good: Jerry Reid probably said it better than anyone could have: Lord Mr. Ford what have you done.
Looking back at Harrison Ford’s career – as far back as 1994’s Clear and Present Danger – it’s easy to understand that sentiment. What did he do? The truth is Han Solo spent the last 17 years collecting checks for his retirement. The guy that kicked ass in Blade Runner, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Presumed Innocent, Star Wars, Working Girl, The Fugitive, and Witness started wearing earrings and dating malnourished TV actresses. If he didn’t make a single decent movie in that stretch – he didn’t seem to care too much. In fact, the best Ford performance we’ve seen lately was in Larry Charles Bruno, and he said two words and was on-screen for just as many seconds.
After watching Jon Favreau’s Cowboys and Aliens this week, I’m happy to report that the slump might be over.
It’s not just that this movie is good – and it’s pretty gawdamn great when you stand it up next to almost everything else we’ve seen during this pagan Summer of 2011 – it’s that there’s that tiny spark behind Harrison Ford’s eyes again. Like maybe a great script and a great cast finally knocked the dust out of his ears and he’s just realizing for the first time in a long time that the name Harrison Ford could mean something again.
The best part is… Ford’s Woodrow Dolarhyde isn’t all that likable when we first meet him. In fact, outside of (the amazing) Clancy Brown and (the even more amazing) Sam Rockwell, almost every character in this movie is ill-tempered and abrasive.
Daniel Craig’s a pit viper. James Bond’s still built out of steel cable – but in this flick he’s lacking almost all of his charm. Craig makes it clear during his opening scene in the film – when a conversation with three bounty-hunters goes sideways in a big, bloody hurry – that this isn’t a Daniel Craig we’re used to hanging out with at the movies. This version doesn’t have much to say. This version buries people to stay alive. And this movie… which could have very easily ended up being something like Ron Underwood’s Tremors – a fun, comfortable compromise between B-movie and Summer blockbuster – isn’t going to take a whole lot of prisoners during its two-hour run.
I don’t think Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman (Hollywood’s new wonder twins – these two kids wrote that last Star Trek movie) are ever really content telling a conventional story in the conventional genres they like to work in. Cowboys and Aliens isn’t any different. They hook us up with the bad guys in this western – the ruthless no-goods and sonsabitches. For the first twenty minutes of the film it might even cross your mind that an alien invasion might be a welcome change in this part of the world.
And maybe it is.
Because at the point we first spot Fire in the Sky, and all alien-hell breaks loose on the streets of Absolution Arizona, we immediately know why it’s so much funner to follow a group of heartless bastards into the territories on an alien bug-hunt. They’re built for this kind of work. When you toss Sam Rockwell’s Doc and Clancy Brown’s Preacher (yep, the Kurgan speaks with Jesus) into the mix the chemistry is complete. And we haven’t even got into Walton Goggins yet…
Walton should probably be in everything. The fact that he isn’t probably has much more to do with how much time there is in a day than it has anything to do with Walton’s abilities as an actor. Walton Goggins makes movies smile. Even Predators. Which is saying something.
It isn’t all western in this new movie – or else I doubt Steven Spielberg would have stamped his name on it as Executive Producer – we do end up with little green men, flying saucers, and ray guns at some point. Thank you Jon Favreau for making these guys out of the same moody material as the no-good sonsabitches chasing them into the wasteland.
Cowboys and Aliens isn’t light on either. These aliens aren’t CG elements, or red dots on a green screen Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford have to act against. These guys have teeth – they have appetites. They can punch a horse off its feet and throw cowboys and Indians around like rag-dolls. Now if only…
The Bad: …their motivations had been made a bit clearer. The film tries to explain who our alien invaders are and what they’re after, but none of it sticks or stands up to scrutiny. These guys are just space invaders – with a taste for human flesh and mindless violence. Which I’m totally fine with. It’s when we enter the inevitable territory of xeno-mythology and motivation things come up a bit skinny. (Calista Flockhart slunk into my head when I wrote that last metaphor… but then Olivia Wilde’s naked body eclipses her completely and relief washes over me in an awesome wave)
If Cowboys and Aliens could have just admitted what Jonathan Liebesmen’s Battle: Los Angeles was much more open about – these aliens need something our planet has plenty of, but they really, really like the sound we make when we’re being beaten to death with concrete blocks – I think I would have been fine with that incentive. At least it’s honest.
Not to say that this movie isn’t violent. I mention this here because some of you have children and you might think that Cowboys and Aliens is a good way to introduce your tiny offspring to the perils and alarm of an alien invasion.
This movie is violent. It’s practically sick with the stuff. Spielberg’s always been able to persuade a ratings board to look the other way when it came to violence in his pictures – I’m thinking he did double-duty helping land Favreau’s film a PG-13 rating.
The Ugly: Daniel Craig’s alien bracelet. It’s like one of those damned Crystal Skulls. When all is lost and hope is gone – just pull this little miracle worker out and kiss your problems goodbye. It’s that frakking easy.
The Verdict: Like I told a bartender last week as I slid an empty whiskey glass in his direction – I’ll take another one of these. It ain’t perfect but Jon Favreau’s got an official hit in a Summer film season practically starved of them. Cowboys and Aliens is fun, rough, and rowdy entertainment. From the terrific cast – including Harrison Ford(!) – to its hardass attitude, this is a movie worth seeing on opening night.
Just leave the little guys at home with a sitter.