"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Cowboys & Aliens

Jon Favreau has certainly come a long way since his independent film roots with Swingers (1996), the film he wrote and starred in. Over the years, he’s increasing spent more time behind the camera than in front, directing Made in 2001. The modest success of that film saw him transition to studio films with larger budgets like Elf (2003) and Zathura (2005). Then came Iron Man (2008), his most ambitious effort up to that point, and he rolled the dice with the casting of Robert Downey Jr. as his leading man. The gamble paid off and the film was a massive success, paving the way for the inevitable sequel. Rushed into production, the end result was a commercial triumph but a critical failure, which upped the stakes for his next film, Cowboys & Aliens (2011), an adaptation of the graphic novel of the same name by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg.

The premise is an intriguing hybrid of the science fiction and western genres with an alien invasion set in 1873 New Mexico. To hedge his bets, Favreau corralled Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford to headline his film, which caused epic seismic ripples through the fanboy community at the prospects of seeing the actors who played James Bond and Indiana Jones in the same film together. As a result, expectations were understandably high. Could Favreau and company deliver the goods or would this be another Wild Wild West (1999)?

A man wakes up in the middle of nowhere wounded and with a strange, futuristic device strapped to his wrist. He has no idea who he is or how he got there. Three men on horseback show up assuming he’s an escape convict and try to take him in. He quickly and brutally dispatches them, taking their gear and heading towards the nearest town – the former mining colony of Absolution. He eventually learns that his name is Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig), a notorious outlaw wanted by the law for a variety of offences. One of which was robbing local cattle baron Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) of his gold. When he learns that Lonergan is in Absolution, Dolarhyde and him men intend to lynch the outlaw in retribution.

However, a strange light appears in the sky just as Dolarhyde arrives into town. The device on Lonergan’s wrist activates and the light turns out to be several alien spacecraft that proceed to blast the town to smithereens and kidnap several of its townsfolk. Lonergan discovers that his wrist device is a weapon, which he uses to take down one of the alien craft. The film sets up Dolarhyde as a mean son of a bitch while Lonergan is a no-nonsense criminal. They represent two unstoppable forces of nature and one of the pleasures of this film is when they have to put aside their differences, repel the alien invaders and rescue the kidnapped townsfolk.

For years, Harrison Ford has made bad choices in the films he’s decided to be in and phoned in one-note performances, playing the same gruff character, but with Cowboys & Aliens acting against someone like Daniel Craig has inspired him to bring his A-game this time around. Ford actually looks interested and engaged in the material and the role. It’s great to see him go up against Craig and their scenes together crackle with intensity and tension. Best of all, Ford has two scenes that expose his character’s gruff exterior and reveal a more vulnerable side. They are poignant and heartfelt because we’ve become invested in these characters by this point. This is the best Ford has been in years and reminds one of when he used to play characters we cared about.

Craig adds another man of action to his roster. He excels at playing edgy tough guys and is well cast as the enigmatic outlaw. The only drawback is that Lonergan is underwritten and there isn’t much for Craig to work with except for some standard motivation for his character revenging a lost one. As a result, the character comes across as a one-note Man with No Name, at times. Favreau does a good job of surrounding Craig and Ford with a solid ensemble cast of character actors. You’ve got Clancy Brown as the upstanding town preacher Meachum, Sam Rockwell as Doc, the mild-mannered saloon owner, Keith Carradine as Sheriff John Taggart, the always watchable Adam Beach as Nat Colorado, Dolarhyde’s right-hand man, and Olivia Wilde as a mysterious woman named Ella whose exotic beauty gives her an almost otherworldly aura. Hell, Favreau even throws Walt Goggins in for good measure as a member of Lonergan’s gang.

Favreau has all the traditional western iconography down cold and the fun of Cowboys & Aliens is seeing these motifs clash with the science fiction elements. So, we see cowboys on horseback being chased by fast-moving alien spacecraft. This film doesn’t stray from the conventions of either genre or try to reinvent them but instead merges and fulfills them in a crowd-pleasing way. Cowboys & Aliens has impressive special effects, nasty-looking aliens, several exciting action sequences, and two cool heroes to root for. This may not be the classic that people were hoping for but it is a very entertaining film in its own right and sometimes that’s enough.



  1. Cool, seeing it this weekend, hope it rocks the house! Favreau can be great when he wants to...and it looks like this is one of the ones where he wanted to do something special, as opposed to Iron Man 2, which felt so rushed. Looking forward to it!

  2. Your last sentence also could have ended with the words

    "... and sometimes it's not."

    I don't know my friend.

    The film didn't have the affect on me that it had on so many. I like both actors, but the idea of them standing around looking cool wasn't going to do it.

    Something about the film, and I know I shouldn't comment having not seen it, looks sterile and fairly routine.

    Even the plot sounds cliched. Something like this I prefer to see integrated in a more complex fashion like Firefly. And that may not be fair as this is meant to be entertainment.

    But, as you put it, simply contrasting motifs doesn't appeal to me. I feel like Favreau does entertainment well, but there's rarely sophistication to any of it. I did love ELF though.

    Obviously a nice cast and some nice effects, but even the one note characters you allude to will surely disappoint me.

    Daniel Craig is good, but a little overrated for me as well.

    It definitely looks far from a classic and passable as entertainment at best. I'm sorry. I shouldn't be so down on it, but I definitely had higher expectations and the trailers have disappointed from the get go. Look, it’s Cowboys & Aliens, not high art, and I’m not suggesting it should be, but it just looks fairly paint by numbers.

    But honestly I'm glad you enjoyed it J.D.

  3. J.D. - Glad you enjoyed this film. I had fun with it, and I think the Western side of its split personality is very well done with some excellent atmosphere and good old Western characters and action.

  4. Feels like a flick that was poked, tweaked, reformatted and re-edited at least a dozen times. Although i did actually have a bit of a good time here withe the cast and crew involved. Good Review!

  5. I agree with your review of Cowboys & Aliens, J.D.! Favreau has indeed recreated the western iconography to perfection and that made the contrast between the humans and the aliens all the more stunning. At the end of your review, you still seem to downplay your enthusiasm by calling the entertaining and that that is enough. Yes, the film’s action elements are indeed entertaining, but it is the human drama that brings the film up a notch above just entertaining.

    I too felt that Harrison Ford “brought his A-game” in his portrayal of Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde. What could have just been a flat bad guy with some issues, Ford turned into a complicated character that helped demonstrate a full range of emotional reactions to the nearly incomprehensible reality of alien beings on Earth. I think you are a little harsh on Daniel Craig’s turn as Jake Lonergan. Jake spends the vast majority of the film, not knowing his own identity or past; particularly the reason for the alien weapon cuffed to his wrist. I though Craig played it well, exhibiting just the right level of indignation, resignation and finally retaliation. Like you, I also enjoyed the solid supporting cast and wished that some of them could have gotten a little more screen time.

    For anyone who hasn’t yet seen the film and thinks that Cowboys & Aliens will be a clichéd pastiche of other western and sf films should see it before passing judgment on it - that includes you, Sci-Fi Fanatic. Anyone interested, can read my review of the film here: http://guardiansofthegenre.blogspot.com/2011/08/cowboys-aliens-2011-satisfying-western.html. In it I give a little background of the comic series it was based on and why I think it’s more than just an entertaining film, but a real drama as well.

  6. The Film Connoisseur:

    I think you'll dig it. The film has a lot going for it to be sure and I enjoyed myself.

    The Sci-Fi Fanatic:

    I understand your reluctance to engage with this film. The trailers were what enticed me to see it. Plus, the chance to see Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford mixing it up. That didn't hurt.

    I certainly didn't feel that the film was just going through the paces. There is some real skill and craft on display, here. Harrison Ford is also excellent. He really stepped it up in a way that pleasantly surprised me.

    Perhaps you'll give it a shot when it comes out on home video.


    Yeah, I really loved the western iconography and how Favreau then integrated the science fiction-y bits. It was fascinating to watch the two genres smash up against each other.

    Dan O.:

    I don't know how much tinkering went on behind the scenes but it felt like a coherent film and not one written by a committee of screenwriters like a lot of big budget Hollywood movies (i.e. TRANSFORMERS).

    Fritz "Doc" Freakenstein:

    Wow, thanks for these great comments! If it seems like I'm waffling a bit at the end of my review it's because I went into the film really wanting to enjoy it in a big way and while I did enjoy myself, I wasn't wowed by the film. Just a personal thing. It was good but not great. I dunno, maybe I need to watch it again. There are many things I thought were excellent, chief among them Ford and the rock solid supporting cast. I understand the whole amnesia thing with Longergan but above and beyond that, Craig's performance was lacking a little bit. A minor quibble.

  7. Hey JD,

    Do you think it would have been cooler if Daniel Craig couldn't talk at all? I'm not criticizing his performance but the literal silent type seemed like the way to go here. Thoughts?

  8. Will:

    That's an interesting idea! I could see that. It give his character's relationship with Ford's even more tension and conflict. Nice.