Cowboys & Aliens has been the summer movie I was most excited about just because of the high concept. I was a little worried that it wouldn’t be enough western but I’m happy to report it is a full on western, even when the aliens show up.
The introduction of Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) is all silent behavior, so you get a sense of who this guy is visually. Jake suits up as a cowboy in the cold open, and Craig makes a great man with no name. It’s not that different from his rough and tumble James Bond, but I want to see that guy in the old west too.
Jake shakes up the town just like any western hero would. Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano) is used to making trouble and endangering civilians with no one standing up to him. Jake humiliates Percy in a badass way. Doc (Sam Rockwell) is just a saloon owner with a dream, Meacham (Clancy Brown) is the preacher who still knows he needs a gun and Sheriff Taggart (Keith Carradine) sees outlaws all the time and recognizes how flexible the law is in the old west. Meanwhile Jake keeps beating dudes up.
Woodrow Dolaryde (Harrison Ford) has a stronghold on the town and Ford is having fun scowling it up. Unfortunately, once the town goes looking for the aliens, Mr. Dolaryde is just along for the ride. He gets some good character moments, especially with he and Jake sizing each other up, but it’s not a fully developed part. Ella (Olivia Wilde) is saddled with all the exposition, and I’ll embrace that pun in all its glory but I would have said the same thing if she were in any genre explaining all the backstory.
Perhaps some of the bad buzz has come from people’s expectations of western. This isn’t the Oscar-y western like True Grit or Unforgiven. It’s like the real westerns of old Hollywood and the Italian era, just a great yarn with cool characters. They still run into bandits and natives, build legends like Woodrow’s war history, ride through the plains on horseback and bond over the campfire.
The little bit of sci-fi is still in the western mold. Jake chases after a spaceship like it’s a runaway stagecoach. In the climactic battle, Nat Colorado (Adam Beach) lassos an alien like cattle. The aliens resemble a combination of Giger, Predator and Blade 2. They look good, although I forgot about their mouth arms until they use them again in the end.
The McGuffin on Jake’s wrist still rubs me the wrong way. It’s a totally artificial mystery. It’s like oh, look, what is this crazy object on his wrist? It exists only to reveal backstory later in the film, and to make it easier for Jake to shoot down alien ships. Other characters come up with creative ways to use their bare bones western tools to fight aliens, but the script hinges a mystery on this artificial device
For me, Cowboys & Aliens is what I wanted in a summer movie. It’s a grand, fantastic world full of big adventure and high concept. Probably not a memorable classic but damn good fun. I hope there’s a porno parody of it. They can call it Reverse Cowgirl & Aliens.