Cowboys & Aliens. Fighting each other. A concept that is pretty much impossible to mess up, and Jon Favreau’s genre mash-up – with possibly the bluntest title of the summer – conjures some good old-fashioned entertaining set-pieces. Unfortunately, however, its genre mashing sensibilities seems to take precedent over things like sensible plot development or well defined characters.
Daniel Craig plays Jake Lonergen, a cowboy who wakes up in the middle of the desert with no memory of who he is and or how he got there. Unfortunately for him he is a wanted criminal and is taken into custody by the local sheriff. Just as he is being taken away to face the judge, the group of villagers see bright lights in the sky, and the attack by the unknown beings begins.
The weaknesses of Cowboys & Aliens isn’t likely to bother the average movie goer. It provides a healthy dose of loud and explosive action, mixing old school western horse chases and gun play with futuristic attacks by the alien invaders. One set piece in particular, which takes place on an open playing field (so to speak) is a film highlight, as Craig does what is effectively his “James Bond in the Old West” performance while kicking ass and taking intergalactic names as much as he can being on the clearly outmatched team. He makes for a solid lead here, although his wavering, unnatural-sounding American accent is a bit of a distraction throughout.
One of the great pleasures of the film – perhaps the single most enjoyable aspect – is the supporting performances form a plethora of amazing character actors. Sam Rockwell, Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood), Keith Carradine (Deadwood), Clancy Brown (The Shawshank Redemption) and Walton Goggins (Justified), to name but a few, all have their time to shine, each bringing a different sort of vibe which all strangely work together very well. Harrison Ford does his usual Harrison Ford thing of talking tough and taking no nonsense, but he really seems in there as just a nod to film fans – there are lots of moments which scream “Hey, look! It’s Harrison Ford! He’s awesome!” And finally Olivia Wilde ends up nothing more than a good looking distraction from the action.
Probably the biggest problem with the film is that it has a few too many plot holes and loose ends to simply ignore. Everything from “Why would the aliens do this?” and other ultimately insignificant but still irritating plot holes, to the bigger things which actively distract from the rest of the proceedings. Not to give anything away but the side plot involving Wilde’s character makes little sense, and makes even less sense the more it’s explored.
The concentration is clearly on the cowboys of the title and not the aliens, not just because they are our heroes but the aliens themselves aren’t all that interesting. When they’re not swooping down like futuristic eagles from the sky picking off (or in this case picking up) prey and we get a close up look at them they are fairly generic, unimaginative and, frankly, not all that intimidating. Another of this summer’s blockbusters, Super 8, handles its alien life form and its back-story infinitely better.
The laboured and underwritten plot, full of plot holes and nonsensical developments, may have something to do with the fact that a whopping five people wrote the script – you might think that’s a good thing as it means more brains working on the one idea to refine it, but here it’s more a case of “too many cooks in the kitchen.” Favreau brings a visual panache to it all (he has clearly grown as an action director since the first Iron Man) and there are fine performances from a wealth of great actors. Ultimately, Cowboys & Aliens fails to fully deliver on its bold “geek dream” premise, stuttering and spluttering as it tries so very hard to mix up two vastly different genres while sadly overlooking other more crucial aspects.