Theatrical Review: With his cast of rough-hewn Western types fully committed to the high concept (especially stars Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford), director Jon Favreau’s respectful approach to both the cowboy and the alien sides of things keeps this summertime laser-oater on a sturdy, enjoyable path.
In Cowboys & Aliens long and lanky Daniel Craig plays an amnesiac Man with No Name (though he and we eventually learn it’s “Jake”) who wakes up in the desert in 1873 with some sort of strange, laser wrist rocket clamped on his arm and proceeds to ride into a nearby town run by Harrison Ford.
All this is straight out of The Big Book of Western Tropes: The stoic gun-slinging loner (Craig), the crooked cattle boss (Ford), the bosses’ loose-cannon son (There Will Be Blood’s Paul Dano, hamming up what would have been the Bruce Dern role 40 years ago), and various town folk with no-nonsense Gunsmoke names like Doc (Sam Rockwell), Preacher (Clancy Brown), Sheriff Taggart (Keith Carradine) and Nat Colorado (Adam Beach).
So far, so John’s Ford and Wayne–right up until silver alien spaceships zoom in and start lassoing up the good people of Absolution, Arizona. You’ve got your cowboys, now here’s your aliens, and away we go. Craig and Ford set aside their dusty differences, round up a posse, and head out into the desert to find the space critters and get everyone’s kin back.
Along the way they sidle up alongside Olivia Wilde’s mysterious purty lady (didn’t know a gingham dress could fit like that), Jake’s old outlaw gang (now headed up by tremendous character actors David O’Hara and Walton Goggins), and a tribe of Apache also looking for the (not-so) little green men who abducted their people. (Parents be warned: While this is clearly a summer-fun flick, some of the alien’s PG-13 doin’s are a little darker and more intense than the silly title suggests.)
Cowboys & Aliens doesn’t have any tricks or surprises up its dusty sleeve. After all, it plays its big ace card right up front: There are cowboys and there are aliens. Together in the same movie.
That simple comic-book premise could have gone horribly, lazily wrong if the summer action movie had stuck its tongue in its grizzled cheek and played things for laughs. On the other hand, there’s a lot of potential for pop-culture satiric flair and sci-fi fizzy fun that the peanut-butter-and-chocolate mix might have dazzled with.
But director Jon Favreau, working off a script whose authors include the Star Trek reboot’s Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof, neither mishandles the tone nor makes it soar into something groundbreaking. An old-school genre craftsman in the mold of John Ford or Howard Hawks, Favreau (who helmed the Iron Man films with similar steady aplomb) takes both sides of his high concept seriously and dishes out storytelling that’s as driven by character as by special effects. The result is a heaping serving of cross-genre comfort food for both Western and Sci-fi fans.
That cause is aided by Craig and Harrison Ford. Craig proves to be an old actions-not-words pro at peering that Steve McQueen face—all chiseled cheekbones and piercing blue eyes—out from under the brim of his hat, and Ford growls along as the grizzled veteran with a hard head and a soft heart.
The cowboys look and act like movie cowboys should; likewise the aliens are suitably and predictably big and slimy like movie aliens should be; and of course everything builds to exactly the Big Summer Battle Climax you’d expect.
Some of this might feel fresh to newcomers who’ve never seen a Western or a Sci-fi flick, but none of it will surprise fans of either genres. Its mashed-up mix aside, Cowboys & Aliens may not have much new to say, but Favreau, Ford, and Craig make that familiarity work as reassuringly solid, warm-weather entertainment.
More from the cast and makers of Cowboys & Aliens at redbox:
- Daniel Craig in Defiance
- Harrison Ford in Morning Glory (on DVD and Blu-ray)
- Olivia Wilde in TRON: Legacy (on DVD and Blu-ray) and The Next Three Days (on DVD and Blu-ray)
- Sam Rockwell in Conviction and Iron Man 2 (on DVD and Blu-ray)
- Walton Goggins in That Evening Sun
- Clancy Brown in Nightmare on Elm Street 2010 (on DVD and Blu-ray)
- Paul Dano in The Extra Man
- Director Jon Favreau’s Zathura, Iron Man (on DVD and Blu-ray) and Iron Man 2 (on DVD and Blu-ray)