Cowboys, Indians, a way-out common enemy
'Maybe he done broke out of the hoosegow," muses one of a trio of grizzled hombres, happening on a stranger with a wounded gut and a weird metal bracelet locked around his wrist.
Or maybe he was abducted by invaders from another planet, and managed to escape, and can't right remember who he is or what happened to him, you reckon?
Yup. Think I'll spit out my tabacky juice just about now.
Cowboys & Aliens, the title-says-it-all mash-up of two rich and venerable movie genres, westerns and sci-fi, begins thusly in the wide-open Arizona desert. It's the 1870s, and the mystery man in question isn't about to sit around and let these sagebrush thugs cart him off.
Seems the stranger - kind of looks like Daniel Craig - has some serious hand-to-hand combat skills. Before the trusty cattle dog that's looking on can blink twice, he has disarmed, dismounted, and dispensed with the three cowpokes. And disrobed one of them, to wear his vest, hat, and chaps.
Directed by Jon Favreau, of the rollicking Iron Man franchise (in fact, Craig's wrist gizmo looks like it was pilfered from Tony Stark's lab), Cowboys & Aliens is based on a comic book and graphic novel. The screenplay credit goes to seven (yes, seven) writers, which is at least five too many. Tonally, the movie is off: not quite as sober and majestic as the John Ford westerns it's inspired by, nor as ironic and irreverent as, well, Favreau's two Iron Man films.
Instead, it's somewhere in between, neither fish nor fowl (nor extraterrestrial), and that's a problem. Craig, handsomely craggy, plays it straight, and like Eastwood's Man With No Name, he doesn't have much to say ("I don't want any trouble" is about as epic as he gets), so the British star, moonlighting from Bond, manages to walk through this business with his integrity intact.
Not so Harrison Ford, as the powerful rancher whose callow son (Paul Dano) gets lassoed by the space-jockeys in their metallic dragonfly ships. Ford, who probably jostled elbows with this very same alien scum at the Mos Eisley Cantina, runs around popping his eyeballs like Gabby Hayes, exclaiming "Jesus, Mary and Joseph!" while he's at it. Sporting a scruffy stubble and a crusty demeanor, he seems less concerned about "the machines that took our kin" than with just keeping up with Craig as they trot around the high country.
And then there's Olivia Wilde as the mysterious woman who's been shadowing Craig since their first encounter in the town saloon. (Maybe she just wants to get close enough to see who's got the bluer eyes - she's definitely got the whiter teeth.) Wilde's Ella, it can be noted, is fluent in Chiricahua Apache, and when it comes time to battle the evil ETs, she's the one who encourages the townsfolk, the outlaws, and the Indians to all work together. They could use her negotiating skills in Washington right now.
And as for the aliens, enough already! It's time for Hollywood's storyboard artists and visual effects geeks to rethink the menacing intergalactic monster look. With their blurry CGIed movement and Alien-meets-Terminator appearance, the title terrors of Cowboys & Aliens are unconvincing, uninteresting, totally generic.
However, their giant towering rocket ship, planted upright in the picturesque canyons, is another story. It looks like Frank Lloyd Wright had a hand in the design, and that's pretty cool.
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org.