THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"COWBOYS & ALIENS"
Take us to your leader! Yee-haw!
You have to give Cowboys & Aliens credit: it delivers exactly what the title promises. A genre mash-up like this can either yield something that feels like a fresh twist on familiar material, or something that feels like a complete disaster. Mixing cowboys with creatures from space is particularly prone to going down the latter road, simply because those two elements wouldn't seem to be even remotely compatible. I won't make the claim that this will go down in history as one of the great adventure movies of all time, but it does largely succeed in turning oil and water into chocolate and peanut butter.
Daniel Craig plays Wild West gunslinger Jake Lonergan, who wakes up in the desert with a mild case of amnesia and some weird metal bracelet around his wrist. He stumbles into Absolution, a town ruled by a wealthy, hard-nosed quasi-dictator named Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). It doesn't take long for Lonergan to fall on Dolarhyde's bad side, or to attract the eye of a local beauty named Ella (Olivia Wilde). Just as things are about to go down between the two men, a fleet of alien ships breezes through town, abducting several local citizens, including Dolarhyde's sniveling son Percy (Paul Dano). Realizing a much greater threat exists, they put aside their differences long enough to develop a plan for fighting the menacing extra-terrestrials.
The early scenes in Cowboys & Aliens are wonderful. The story intentionally mimics the familiar stranger-in-town set-up that has been found in many a Western. The way the characters and the town are introduced has a pleasingly recognizable feel, and there's a great running bit about Percy getting on Lonergan's last nerve. Director Jon Favreau (Iron Man) really plays up the conventions of the genre, so that the abrupt left turn taken when the aliens first arrive is dramatic and suspenseful. Favreau wisely doesn’t overdo it with that first attack, instead finding a way to add aliens to the story without having them completely overwhelm it.
After the fun promised by this beginning, the plot promptly hits a few dead spots. An abundance of supporting characters are introduced and given their due. Some of them, including a nervous child and Percy's right hand man, could have been axed. The screenplay - credited to six (!) writers - also has some trouble transitioning into the action it knows needs to be incorporated. Once the premise is established, the plot scrambles to find a way to bring in a group of outlaws and an Apache tribe who will join in the fight. These things don't happen very smoothly, so that, at times, it seems like everything is grinding to a halt.
Those dead spots occupy a section of the film's second act. Then it finds its footing again, giving us a simple, appropriate explanation for why the aliens are here, as well as setting up the tactic Lonergan and Dolarhyde will take in trying to defeat them. Fun re-emerges at this point, with several action sequences getting the maximum mileage out of the mash-up concept. I love that the cowboys fight the aliens with the things they have: six shooters, spears, dynamite, etc. There are no moments where they develop any unrealistically complex weapons, or do anything that seems out of place for a bunch of cowboys. Lonergan's wrist bracelet has some properties of a weapon, but other than that, the film stays true to the roots of its Western half. It finds a way to make old technology convincingly fight advanced technology.
Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford are perfect choices for the material, as both men project a natural masculinity. Somehow, it feels like, if these guys really were cowboys, they just might be able to fight off a race of hostile aliens. Paul Dano and Olivia Wilde are also effective in their roles, adding comic relief and a sense of mystery, respectively.
Looked at mathematically, Cowboys & Aliens is about two hours long. Thirty of those minutes are a tad weak, while the other ninety are quite entertaining. I think, on balance, it is a movie worth seeing. The premise is ambitious, and the filmmakers find enough clever ways to exploit its potential. Cowboys & Aliens is escapist fare through and through. If you can ride over a short rough section, you ultimately get an enjoyable collision between two disparate cinematic worlds.
( out of four)
Cowboys & Aliens is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of Western and sci-fi action and violence, some partial nudity and a brief crude reference. The running time is 1 hour and 58 minutes.