Combustible Celluloid
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With: Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, Adam Beach, Paul Dano, Noah Ringer, Keith Carradine, Clancy Brown, Walton Goggins, Brendan Wayne, Ana de la Reguera, Abigail Spencer, Buck Taylor
Written by: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, based on a story by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Steve Oedekerk, and on a comic book by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg
Directed by: Jon Favreau
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of western and sci-fi action and violence, some partial nudity and a brief crude reference
Running Time: 118
Date: 07/29/2011

Cowboys & Aliens (2011)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

In Space, No One Can Hear You Yee-Haw!

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The cowboys in Cowboys & Aliens are cool. You've got the mysterious loner that rides into town, and the wealthy rancher that runs everything; you've even got the nice-guy bartender and the pretty girl. It's the aliens that are kind of dull. They're very typical CGI beasties, bounding across the scrub brush; they even have one of those creepy orifices with the four-way opening that was invented more than 30 years ago for Alien (1979) and has been used to death ever since. There's nothing even vaguely interesting or scary about them.

So... if a movie is only as great as its villain, then Cowboys & Aliens is just so-so. It's too bad, because I was excited about this movie as any other movie this summer. I'm a big fan of Westerns. I'm a fan of Jon Favreau's; he has proved to be one of Hollywood's most reliable directors of action-oriented popcorn movies. And I was thrilled that Harrison Ford would be playing his first cowboy character since The Frisco Kid (1979); wasn't he born to play cowboys?

But the result is just OK. It's a fairly decent time-waster, and you could do a lot worse this summer, but I wish that it had conjured up a sense of fun, or a sense of the ridiculous. It should have had a scrappy "B" movie spirit, instead of a lethargic "A" movie spirit.

Daniel Craig stars as the mysterious stranger, who is even a stranger to himself. He wakes up in the middle of nowhere, no boots, wounded, and with a strange hunk of metal strapped to his wrist. He can't remember anything. It's a great start to a movie. Some creepy bounty hunters approach, and he dispatches them quickly, snatching up some boots, guns, and a horse with little trouble.

He rides into town, and the local preacher (Clancy Brown) patches him up. Then punk kid Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano) starts shooting up the place and trying to bully everyone; his pa, Woodrow (Harrison Ford), is a cattle baron and practically runs the town. The stranger takes care of the bully, and meets some other locals: bartender "Doc" (Sam Rockwell), Nat, an Indian raised by whites (Adam Beach), the sheriff (Keith Carradine), and the beautiful, equally mysterious Ella (Olivia Wilde).

This would be a good setup for any old-fashioned Western, but at around this time, the aliens attack and start abducting people. The abductees are carefully chosen so that a posse can be formed to rescue them. The posse is made up of a unique cross-section of characters, most of whom are at odds with one another.

The movie keeps several plot items in the dark until the appropriate moments, and this method is effective until everything is finally revealed and proves -- not very interesting. What could have possibly gone wrong here? I have a guess. The opening credits provides a clue. There are sixteen producers, including Favreau, Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, and Brian Grazer. Harrison Ford has a line about why they should not call in the military: because they'll have to radio Washington to ask which hand they should wipe with. I'm sure that's a sentiment that Favreau is familiar with; he had a great many bosses looking over his shoulder.

There's that, plus five screenwriters (six, if you count Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, the author of the comic book). Not to mention that there were probably other, uncredited writers, and that both Ford and Craig probably had some input. On his earlier pictures (Zathura, Iron Man, Iron Man 2), Favreau seemed like a guy out to have a good time, like his old Swingers (1996) character. Now he's gone to the party and all his bosses are there, looking over his shoulder.

Back in 1969, there was a movie called The Valley of Gwangi, or, essentially "cowboys & dinosaurs." By no means was it any work of art; it was a "B" movie, true blue. Perhaps if Cowboys & Aliens had embraced that spirit, rather than trying to overcome and outspend it, we might have had some good summer fun.

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