August 3, 2011

Cattle Rustlers From Another Planet

Now that the BIG movie of the season has dropped, the time of transition has begun, from Summer to Oscar. This is the time where we start to see a decrease in the explosions and an increase in drama and carefully planned character development. Usually, this is the time where we say goodbye to the likes of Transformers, GI Joe, and other dumb, action movies of that ilk, and we say hello to the likes of District 9, (500) Days of Summer, and films that, while maybe not the sort that will be recognized come the Academy Awards, nicely allude to the level of quality to come. Cowboys & Aliens is such a film, a truly masterful character study of men pushed to the edge, up against overwhelming odds, with wonderful redemption to be found and... 

Haha, had you going there for a minute, didn't I? No, what Cowboys & Aliens really is, is a a rip-snorting, action packed, genre mash-up that has an awesome concept, but fails to actually live up to it. Performances are passable at best, and the action doesn't do any more than it has to. The whole project seems like it came out because one studio head said, "Pourquoi pas?", which is never a good sign. 

Six shooters vs. lasers. We can do that.. right?

A man wakes up in the desert with no memory and no clue as to where he came from expect for a mysterious bracelet on his arm. He is soon identified as Jake Lonergan, a notorious outlaw who just happened to piss off the most powerful man in the county, Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde. Unfortunately, as Jake is arrested, something more than a little destructive than a gang of bandits descends on their town. Yes, powerful, slimy, aliens have decided it's time to blow up the planet, and go about that by abducting every deputy, bar wench and cowpoke in the immediate vicinity. So, Jake, whose bracelet is revealed to be an alien weapon, teams up with Dolarhyde to get the people back and give those extra-terrestrial pain in the asses a good, old fashioned, welcome, Earth style! 

Based on the graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, Fred Van Lente, and Andrew Foley, Cowboys & Aliens starts off pretty effectively, offering a genre mashup that we really haven't seen. Unfortunately, it quickly becomes apparent that nothing was really done to effectively blend the two genres. Indeed, it seems like an alien movie was just dropped into a western, and they are both operating on completely different levels. Nothing was done to play with the genre conventions, even though all the conventions are there. You got the man with no name. You have the mysterious and brutal alien force. You have the two cowboys at odds with each other while being forced to work together. But there's no examination of the conventions, and there's no satirization of them, which, I'm sorry, is something you expect when you mix COWBOYS AND ALIENS!!! It's never been done, so some sort of cheeky attitude was almost required to make it work, but nothing of the sort happens. Instead, the plot plods along, hitting all the points it needs to, and nothing more. This thing had six, count em', six writers, so maybe some of the problems stem from the almost guaranteed communication breakdown, but there were so many elements that would have been so easy to include, and it's such a shame that they are all looked over. 

One of the things that, no doubt, got asses in the seats was the star power. I mean, it's not every day that you get to see James Bond and Han Solo bring the pain to some alien douchebags. Unfortunately, neither Daniel Craig or Harrison Ford really make that great of an impression. Craig is basically playing his version of Bond, only with ten gallon hats and six-shooters instead of Omega watches and Walther PPKs. He's just as brooding, just as unsympathetic, and dishes out a fair amount of hand-to-hand beat downs. It's not bad by any means; Craig's version of Bond is one of the best, but a role like this needed a more smarmy approach, and Craig doesn't have it. Also, his accent totally blows!

Ford fairs better as the hardassed Dolarhyde. It's refreshing to see Ford playing something resembling a villain for a change. His Dolarhyde is actually kind of a jerk, and Ford has a great time chewing up the scenery. But, that's only for his first fifteen minutes of screen time. After that, it's back to the regular, chummy ol' Harrison we're used to. Every aspect of his darker side is immediately forgotten when the aliens show up. Again, not bad, but not what was needed for the project.

Indeed, the only person who seems to be milking this for all its absurdities is Olivia Wilde as the enigmatic Ella. We don't really know what her deal is as she dogs Lonergan, continually asking him where he came from, and Wilde has a grand old time relishing in her ambiguity. She's the center of the big twist at the 2/3 mark, and it's an over the moon ridiculous with a capitol R twist, but she plays it like a champ, despite the fact that I knew what the twist was from the second she started divulging info.

Other players include Sam Rockwell as a pussy of a barkeep, Paul Dano as Dolarhyde's shit of a son, and Adam Beach as the posse's one Native American companion who somehow manages to go the entire movie without bringing up the irony of the whole situation. You know, technologically superieor foreign invaders encroaching on the home turf? Remind you of anything? Of course it does. You paid attention in 2nd grade history.

Also, the kid who played the Avatar in The Last Airbender makes his triumphant attempt to make us forget about that affront to humanity. He fails. I dislike this movie even more.

Worst! Hangover! Ever!

Jon Favreau follows up his second date with everyone's favorite walking nuclear deterrent with this adequately executed romp in the desert. As a director, he's gotten better at handling mayhem and action on screen, but that has come at the price of the characters. Iron Man worked so well because Tony Stark was such an awesome character, so much so that the lack of any decent action to speak of was sort of alright. That's not really the case here; Lonergan and Dolarhyde just aren't all that interesting. There are attempts to flesh out their backstories; Lonergan left his gang to be with the woman he loved, Dolarhyde resents to US government for a botched military operation that saw his entire brigade killed, and so on, but it all falls flat and doesn't rise higher than a spruced up cliche. The action is better (more on that in a bit), but it's not so good that we can ignore the gaps in the characters.

It might have helped if the aliens were interesting, but even they get the short end of the stick. We're told they want gold. We're never clued into whether the gold is used to help them survive, if it powers their technology, or if, as Dolarhyde snidely quips, "They just want to buy things." The monsters look cool enough, sort of like a cross between a baboon and a frog, but my friend pointed something out to me as we were walking out the theatre. They looked exactly like the Super 8 alien, only with less legs. Maybe it was the fact that Steven Spielberg produced both movies. I don't know.

If one thing sort of saves the flick, it's the action, which is better than anything Favreau has done yet. The first big set piece, the night attack seen in all the trailers, is really intense and well made. After that, it's sort of down hill. There's a lot of repetition in the violence here. It's either the posse running from the aliens as their ships attempt to blow them up/abduct them, or the posse going toe-to-toe with the aliens on the ground. The finale is sufficiently epic, with a pitched battle taking place outside and in the alien mothership, but it doesn't really go beyond that. It's fun, but not fun enough.

If there is anything here that is, 100%, no qualms from me, good, it's the score, which is really good! A potent mix of western guitars and strings, mixed with the epic horns and drums of a sci-fi actioner, it's the only element of the whole thing that perfectly blends the two genres together.

And, in case you haven't figured it out, that's a big problem! Let me go back to my final comment about the action. It's fun, but not fun enough. Yeah, Cowboys & Aliens is entertaining, but it is nowhere near the level of awesome that a movie with this premise should be. It's a snazzy project, to be sure; a lot of money was clearly sunk into this thing, but barely any of it seemed to go into making the movie the kind of over the top, absurd, epic we expected or wanted. Cowboys & Aliens should be akin to John Wayne punching the Predator in the face, but instead it's more like watching The Man With No Name having an elongated sniper battle with a Na'viStill kinda cool when you think about it, but not even close to what it could have been. Man, this was a disappointment.


  1. Feels like a flick that was poked, tweaked, reformatted and re-edited at least a dozen times. But there is still some deal of fun to be had here, this just shouldn't have taken itself so seriously. Good Review!

  2. Completely agree man. The first fifteen minutes are promising, but after that it just nose dives in to cliche. The posse is full of characters we've seen before, the aliens are COMPLETELY generic, and speaking of the irony of Adam Beach's character - why, despite their superior technology, were the aliens basically savages? It was like watching a revisionist Western where the noble white man triumphed over the uncivilized "Injun". Pretty distasteful...and pretty boring as well.

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