Theatrical Review: Cowboys & Aliens

Our setting is the Old West and as the movie begins, outlaw Jake Lonegran abruptly awakens out in the wild.  He’s been beaten and has no clue as to who he is and how he’s ended up where he’s ended up.  He notices a mysterious wrist attachment, and while he’s trying to take the attachment off, he’s encountered by a trio who’s making their way to the town of Absolution.  When Jake doesn’t give them answers that they’re looking for, the trio decides to “teach” this stranger a lesson.  Jake reacts instinctively and quickly teaches the trio a lesson of his own and soon he’s taken some of their clothing, their money and some guns and makes his own way to Absolution, still having no clue as to who he is and how he’s ended up in this situation.

Once he’s made his way to Absolution, Jake finds out a little about the town and a few of the people, and then comes across Percy Dolarhyde, the reckless son of Woodrow Dolarhyde, a former Colonel who controls the town thanks to his cattle business.  Percy ends up getting himself into quite a bit of trouble as he’s trying to teach Jake a lesson and lands himself in jail.  Soon though, the town’s sheriff takes notice of Jake and recognizes his picture from a wanted poster.  Jake has also caught the eye of a mysterious woman named Ella, who seems to know everything about Jake’s situation but isn’t really giving anything up yet.

Soon, word gets to Woodrow Dolarhyde about what has happened to his son.  Dolarhyde and his men make their way to Absolution in the middle of the evening to try and get Percy free just as Percy and Jake are both being taken away to the Federal Marshal.  Just as this happens, strange flying craft appear over the town, quickly establishing that they’re there for destructive purposes and in the process, abduct many of the townspeople.  Now, Jake and Woodrow Dolarhyde find that they have to join forces to find out the secrets behind these mysterious visitors.

That’s the premise to Cowboys & Aliens the latest comic/graphic novel to make it’s way to the big screen as well as the latest from director and actor Jon Favreau, who’s best known recently for his work at the helm of both of Marvel Entertainment’s Iron Man films.  Now, I’ve never read the graphic novel (written by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg), so I’ve no clue as to how close this is to it.  I’ve heard though that the main inspiration for the adaptation has been more from the cover image of the book more than anything else, so take from that what you will.

Favreau’s got some very impressive talent both behind and in front of the camera, with the driving script having such notables as Lost creator Damon Lindelof and the duo of Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, who are currently the driving forces behind the TV shows Hawaii Five-O and Fringe as well as having had their hands in many big movies, including the Transformers franchise and the latest re-working of Star Trek. With writers with that pedigree, you certainly do expect big things from Cowboys & Aliens.

For the most part, Cowboys & Aliens delivers a fun, popcorn experience.  Favreau’s movie certainly has a terrific look (I think it’s his best-looking movie to date) and has some pretty impressive visual effects.  Where this falters is with it’s script.  Now when I say that, please keep in mind, I still had a great time with this movie, so I’m not really being damning with my criticism.  I think they’re trying to pack a little too much into this though and not necessarily paying everything off as satisfactory as they could.  Plus there’s a few holes (in particular behind the character of Ella) that you could drive a truck through.  It’s still a pretty rousing good time with some pretty terrific set pieces, but it’s script could’ve probably used a few less hands involved.

Of course, when you’ve got a cast that’s as large and diverse as this, I guess the temptation is there to try and give everyone their due, and for the most part, everyone does get their due but to varying degrees of satisfaction.

The cast is headed by Daniel Craig as Jake Lonegran and Harrsion Ford as Woodrow Dolarhyde.  Craig, of course, is best known these days for being the latest actor to play James Bond, and here he’s just as intense as he is as Bond, being quite convincing with his action sequences.  I tend to see Craig in the same vein as the late, great Steve McQueen with a coolness and confidence that all guys wish they could have, and he certainly continues that perception with Cowboys & Aliens. I haven’t been quite as impressed with some of the more recent work from Harrison Ford, and as this gets started, I was almost wishing for that part to have been played by someone like Gene Hackman instead.  But, Ford does get some nice service from the script and has the most satisfying arc that any of the characters of this movie can hope to have.  His character actually does go through a transformation here, and it’s very much evident on-screen.

They’re backed up with a very impressive array of talent including Clancy Brown, Keith Carradine, Paul Dano, Noah Ringer, Sam Rockwell, Adam Beach, David O’Hara and Walton Goggins.  All of these guys play some specific Western archetypes and they’re all certainly very serviceable in their parts.  I thought that Sam Rockwell and Paul Dano were both quite good. Rockwell plays Doc, the man who runs the local saloon and who’s getting tired of being pushed around by the Dolarhydes.  For myself, Sam Rockwell, whether he’s playing a lead or he’s in support, is always money in the bank.  He’s strictly support here, but he certainly brings enough to the table to stand out amongst this impressive cast.  Paul Dano plays Percy Dolarhyde and he’s certainly quite effective in creating this spoiled son character that you really want to see get hurt at just about every opportunity.

Olivia Wilde plays the mysterious Ella and she’s the one character that I have the most problem with, though it’s not any fault of Wilde’s.  Ella is key for this group’s discovery of why the aliens are here.  Her character really does nothing more than advance the plot to the writer’s convenience.  Ella leaves more questions than answers and while I don’t think that every film necessarily has to dot all of their “i’s” and cross all of their “t’s,” as far as her character was concerned, this needed more completion.

Still, even with it’s script problems, I thought Cowboys & Aliens was a fun genre mash-up.  I certainly had a good time with it despite it’s script shortcomings.  Jon Favreau has certainly done all he could to at least make this look fantastic and he keeps things moving at a pretty brisk pace.  Harrison Ford is the biggest standout for me with it’s extremely impressive cast, getting the best character payoff by the film’s end.  I wouldn’t necessarily say to run right out and see this right away, but it’s certainly a fun diversion, just as long as you’re not too demanding in getting every question answered.

About Darren Goodhart

Darren Goodhart is a 44-year old St. Louis-based Graphic Designer and Illustrator (and former comic book artist) who's been seeing movies all his life, but on an almost weekly basis in theatres for the last 20 years and owns nearly 1,000 DVDs for his home theatre. He's learned a lot about film over the 20 year period, and has taken his appreciation beyond the mainstream. His favorite types of film are mostly genre entertainment, but he also enjoys a wide range of drama, action and cult-y stuff from around the world, and is currently re-discovering a love affair with lower budget exploitation and genre films from the 70s and early 80s. He doesn't try to just dismiss any film, but if there's a bias against one, he'll certainly tell you that in the space of his reviews.

31. July 2011 by Darren Goodhart
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