What could bring together cowboys and Indians in the Wild West? Aliens, of course! The high concept Western/sci-fi Cowboys & Aliens manages quite capably to blend two genres, producing surprisingly entertaining b-movie pulp.
Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the desert with little knowledge of who he is and how he got there. After being confronted by three wannabe bounty hunters, he dispatches them efficiently, establishing immediately that he’s a guy who can handle himself. Wandering into the dusty town of Absolution, Jake discovers that he’s a wanted man. And just when he’s about to get shipped off to the gallows by the town’s sheriff (Keith Carradine), aliens swoop in and save him. Or did he really need saving?
The aliens have landed and have a particular interest in abducting the townsfolk. But when the loser son of the ruthless local land baron, Col. Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), is captured by the mysterious other-worldly creatures, a posse is formed. The search is on to bring back the missing, come hell or high water.
The sincere attempt by director Jon Favreau (Iron Man) to recreate the look and feel of an authentic Western works well despite the overall clichéd nature of the narrative. Adapted from a popular graphic novel, Cowboys & Aliens is an unambitious outing that won’t likely spawn many sequels. This likely one-shot genre mash-up borrows more from the Western than from science fiction. While the big bang action conclusion is typical and won’t surprise many viewers, the set-up is intriguing. Why couldn’t aliens have visited the Old West?
Relying on a recognizable cast led by 007 Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, it is hard to not recommend the film for the camp value alone. And the script smartly gives Ford a chance to be bad (he’s down-right ruthless early on), and then it gives him an opportunity to redeem himself. Craig is well-cast as the lean, dangerous leading man, who has acquired a futuristic weapon that attaches itself to his wrist. This weapon, probably meant for use by the alien invaders, is wielded better by the trained gun-slinger than any of his clumsy outer space foes. Missing is a scene in which Craig’s character does a little target practice with the device showing tech-heads what its capable of. But there is a lot going on in this probably overlong adventure containing arguably too many characters.
And the sheer number of characters introduced is as impressive as it proves distracting. Probably because filmgoers are so intimately familiar with typical Western elements, we buy that every Western town has a bar-owner named Doc, a worldly preacher, an honest sheriff, an orphan kid, and a dog. It helps that these roles are filled with familiar faces. Sam Rockwell makes a solid Doc, and the preacher is played by a grizzled, bearded Clancy Brown. Veteran actor Keith Carradine, who has played cowboys before in films like The Long Riders and HBO’s Deadwood, dials in the right vibe for the sheriff. This experienced talent gives the film a little weight that defies its comic book origins. But that points up the inherent limitations of something as ridiculous sounding as Cowboys & Aliens: it is not meant to be taken seriously, regardless how dedicated its fanbase may be. And although I found the schlocky entertainment value of the film to be satisfying, it isn’t a transcendent mix of two otherwise important film genres. The movie is at its core an action picture. It’s loud and comically violent and sometimes nice to look at, but it won’t likely go down in the pantheon of cinema as the moment that something unique was created.