Cowboys & Aliens – 2011

Directed by Jon Favreau

Starring Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, Adam Beach, Paul Dano, Clancy Brown, Keith Carradine, Noah Ringer

Written by Damon Lindelof, Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby based on Cowboys & Aliens by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg

Harrison Ford has strolled into old age with a certain amount of grizzled grace.  It’s tough at times to differentiate the man from the myth that he has created as a grouch with a winsome grin.  In Cowboys & Aliens, that grin is gone, for the most part.  In what could be considered just a bit of a stretch, he plays a sort of bad guy…to begin with.
As the big cattle baron Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde, who looms over the town of Absolution, Ford begins a quest to get his worthless son (Dano) out of jail.  Before he can get too far, he is interrupted first by his quest to also get back at Jake Lonergan (Craig) who, at the moment, has no memory of the gold he stole from Dolarhyde only a few days earlier.  His quest to get back at Lonergan is likewise interrupted by a bunch of aliens.

Everyone in the town feels the wrath of these aliens until Lonergan discovers that the strange apparatus attached to his wrist is just the thing to fight them.  This is not before the aliens nabbed a few humans, including Dolarhyde’s son.

This leads to a posse, headed up by the old grizzler and including Lonergan, a preacher (Brown), a saloon owner (Rockwell), a mysterious woman (Wilde) and the grandson (Taggart) of the sheriff (Carradine), and the Colonel’s right hand man (Beach).  It’s an odd, combination, to be sure, and the mix has as many misses as matches.  The journey is the most awkward part of the film.  It feels a lot like the party when you end up hanging out with the weirdos and you realize it is likely because you are one of the weirdos.

Craig is foremost among the oddities in this film.  As the mysterious Lonergan, he gives off a weird energy.  I can’t put a finger on it. His violence is as feral as James Bond’s, but without the feeling of accomplishment or any amount of charisma.  I don’t know if he was miscast so much as misused.

Other actors in the film also fail to make much of an impression.  Clancy Brown is an interesting choice as a preacher, but his screen time is limited and odd.  Sam Rockwell does not strike me as the barkeeper without self-esteem, and Paul Dano is as annoying as he ever is.  Quite possibly my least favorite actor, I don’t think he is as much miscast as he is just unwatchable.

Of the worthwhile performances, Wilde provides an air of mystery and allure.  Her role is very much telegraphed, but it does not make it any less enjoyable.  Carradine in the stereotypical good, but powerless sheriff.  This is the kind of role he can play in his sleep.  Adam Beach takes a poorly written role and makes it interesting.  His performance works well with Ford’s.

One of these guys looks like he's worn a hat before.

Speaking of Ford, you had to know that the bad guy routine doesn’t last long.  This is not to say that it is unbelievable in his progression to converted nice guy.  Maybe it’s because there is so little else to grasp onto, but his personality stands head and shoulders above the others, particularly, the headliner, Craig.

I think a lot of the blame has to be levied at Favreau’s development of the material.  If there had been better casting, or cast development, there would have been perhaps more interest in what was going on.

The special effects don’t help other.  Some of the cleanest special effects I have ever seen in the Iron Man films, and one has every right to believe that the special effects here would have been at least on par.  In Cowboys & Aliens, many of the effects are as muted as Robert Redford’s face in Indecent Proposal.  The aliens were alright, but stupidly designed, with no real reason for their front set of forearms except and heart but to be revealed as a weakness at the right time.

The dust and blur gives the feeling of drunkeness

This is the kind of movie I was afraid Favreau would turn Iron Man into.  That he didn’t was a very pleasant surprise.  Here, using the same cinematographer, Matthew Libatique, that he was with for both of those films, the result is blurry during the attacks, and oppressive during the day.  The former, one would assume, is due to dust being kicked up, while the latter is supposed to represent heat.  Intention aside, the effect is not very fun to look at.  Libatique works a lot with Aaronofsky and Spike Lee as well.  This does not strike me as one of his better efforts.

Another thing I lay on Favreau’s shoulders is the lack

of chemistry with the cast.  The success of Westerns, especially ones that involve journeys, you need to give
the appearance of people who know one another in that world, not just playacting when the camera is on.   This is one of Ford’s obvious strengths.  Aside from him and Beach, though, I had the feeling that the actors’ trailers were 50 feet away, with portable shade.

Okay, now why would you shout at me but just step on other people?

Add to this the unnecessary and ineffective clichéd scenes like when an alien just roars at a kid, as compared to the simple act of breathing on one that worked so well in Super 8.  Then there’s waiting for someone to intervene or when character dies with absolutely no feeling that it really happened.  Because it didn’t.

Where does this movie fit, in sci-fi, or westerns?  Both?  I want to say neither.  This is one Harrison Ford movie that will not receive repeated viewings for this reviewer.  But it was worth a once through.

(*** out of *****)

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