Film review: Cowboys & Aliens

Titles for movie mash-ups tend to be pretty clear. Alien vs. Predator. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Aliens (plural) vs. Predator (singular). There’s no mistaking what you’re going to get.

Cowboys & Aliens delivers what it promises: namely, cowboys and aliens – along with the brief novelty that accompanies such titles.

Based loosely on the 2006 graphic novel of the same name, and set in the late 1800s, director Jon Favreau’s film begins as any Western might. Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) wakes up dirty and wounded in the middle of a desert with a mysterious cuff clamped on his wrist and no memory of the time before. When threatened by armed mercenaries, he seems, however, to conjure James Bond. He quickly thrashes the baddies, steals their chaps and steed and rides into the nearest town. Jake may be as lethal as 007 but he could use some of Bond’s cool. He rides a horse so stiffly and upright that he looks like a toddler bouncing in a Jumperoo.

In town, he encounters Ella (Olivia Wilde) who unsettles him with her otherworldly beauty and the way she reads him like he’s got the map to a golden treasure on his chiselled chest. He also meets the wealthy and cantankerous Woodrow Dolarhyde, played by Harrison Ford, the original space cowboy. Unfortunately, Dolarhyde recognizes Jake as the varmint who stole his gold.

Before the sheriff and his deputy (played by John Wayne’s grandson, Brendan) can haul Jake before the federal authorities, the cowboys have a higher power to answer to: the aliens that arrive like a fire on the horizon. Their UFOs, which look like a cross between fireflies and hedge trimmers, blast the cowboys’ town to smithereens before lassoing the townsfolk. Jake, who’s also conveniently forgotten what it’s like to feel fear, stands amidst the dusty, burning rubble, aims his futuristic manacle at an oncoming spaceship and makes their day.

Despite having a team of screenwriters, the film doesn’t provide much exposition. How did Jake know how to work his bracelet? Um, he just did. And why are the aliens invading Earth? Because they’re on a gold rush.

“That’s ridiculous,” Dolarhyde says, echoing the sentiments of the audience. “What are they going to do? Buy something?”

The filmmakers never reveal why the aliens want all them thar gold. For all we know, they could be building some sort of [Au]some lily pad. After all, the aliens appear amphibious – like the Geico mascot on steroids – and come with an extra set of hidden hands. Now, that’s ridiculous. What are they going to do? Slap you or pinch you to death with their three fingers? (Definitely not as cool as Ridley Scott’s aforementioned xenomorphs with the extra set of hidden jaws.)

Admittedly, when the cowboys team up with the natives to try to retrieve their abducted loved ones, it makes for an amusing battle scene or two, reminiscent of child’s play. The heroes frantically cock the hammers of their revolvers like they’re slapping levers in a game of Hungry Hungry Hippos. Meanwhile, the heroes’ bullets bounce off the green-blooded enemies like foam darts. (Favreau throws in some classic Western action sequences, such as the ol’ dramatic leap from a horse onto a moving vehicle, or in this case, spaceship.)

This kind of wink-wink fun balances out the clichéd and the predictable. Each character fulfills their duty as a warrior, including the meek, bespectacled saloon owner (Favreau favourite Sam Rockwell) and the young Emmett (Noah Ringer, who starred in The Last Airbender).

Just don’t expect any thoughtful juxtapositions of the alien invasion with European colonization. Expect cowboys and aliens, which means bad grammar (“Might could be,” one bandit says) and plenty of explosions.

The best combination in the film, however, is Craig as the terse, pouty-mouthed badass and Ford as the crusty-on-the-outside/softon-the-inside colonel. Therefore, I suggest this mash-up: Bond & Indy, coming to theatres in 2013.

This review was originally published in the National Post on July 29, 2011.


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