Cowboys & Aliens

a film by Jon Favreau

When I first heard of this film, probably nearly two years ago now, and its bizarre western/sci-fi genre mash-up premise (based on the 2006 graphic novel of the same name, written by Fred Van Lente and Andrew Foley, and released by Platinum Studios), and later casting of Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig in the lead roles, that geeky inner fanboy that hides deep inside of me reared its cheesy-grinned nerd face from said hiding place and let out a boisterous barbaric yawp that woke all of the dead from their eternal slumber. I mean really, Indiana Jones and James Bond fighting aliens in the old west - what could be freakin' cooler than that!? The inner fanboy in me would say nothing is cooler than that – nothing.

But then, after a bit of a silly fit, I put that inner fanboy back in his hiding place where he belongs (he still manages to sneak out with the release of every comic book movie - good or bad) and went about my business as the respectable film historian and critic (and part time film snob) that I publicly portray myself as. But alas, with the recent release of the aforementioned sci-fi/western hybrid (which incidentally is somewhat rare but not completely unique thanks to films such as Westworld and The Wild Wild West, how you should and should not do such a genre respectively), that little bastard has snuck back out again and is making me look the fool once more. Lucky for him (and I suppose for myself as well) I actually liked the film upon finally seeing it.

Now granted, the film - the story of an alien invasion on a small 1880's western town and the eventual and quite inevitable teaming up of archetypal enemies such as cowpokes, gunfighters, lawmen and Indians in battle against said alien invaders - never quite lives up to that anticipatory fanboy lust (and accompanying barbaric yawp) and comes precariously close to self-mockery on several occasions (such an oddfellow genre mash-up needs to watch out for such), but in the end, when all the dust and sagebrush and alien goop and goo settle down, the film is a fun piece of pop entertainment. A regular good bang for your buck as it were.

Director Jon Favreau, a more than competent but not necessarily exciting filmmaker (let’s face it, the guy isn’t exactly out there re-inventing the wheel) gives the film the usual cocky stuff he brings to an action movie (he did wonders with the first Iron Man) and the combination of special effects (none of which get in the way of the story like many an effects-laden mainstream actioner these days) and old school western tropes (the film actually works better as a western than as a sci-fi vehicle) make the film something to see, but the real heart of this movie – the real meat if you will – is the great ensemble cast that Favreau and his producers have gathered together.

The iconic Ford – finally back in a role that deserves his passion and power (and the heroic status he received back in the days of my childhood and young adulthood in the late seventies and eighties) – is a snarling sight to see as a wealthy landowner and town despot who wields his self-proclaimed omnipotent power the way he wielded his whip as Indiana Jones. Craig, the swarthiest Bond since Connery (with a rock hard body to go with such an attribute), is great as an amnesiac wanted man with a mysterious metal armband that occasionally decides to come to life and allow itself to be used as a kickass weapon against the aliens. His idea of an American accent may not be one for the ages and this does make him sound quite strange at certain times, but he plays the man-with-no-name bit pretty damn well for an Englishman.

The film also features Sam Rockwell as a pussy-footed saloon owner called Doc, Clancy Brown as a buckshot country preacher, Paul Dano as Ford’s insolent pest of a son, Adam Beach as an Indian working for Ford with the spectacular name of Nat Colorado, Keith Carradine as the town sheriff and Olivia Wilde as the requisite Annie Oakley/Calamity Jane character (as sexy as she is deadly) with a few secrets of her own up her gun-toting sleeve. It is this banding together of former foes that make this film shine as much as it does, and it is this particular aspect of the film that, as I said earlier, makes it work better as a western than as a science fiction film. In fact, even though that damn inner fanboy would probably not agree, the film could have worked just as well, if not better, without the alien half of it at all.

In the end though, these differing genres do manage to play out in a relatively enjoyable accord, and Favreau’s ability to hammer together quality action sequences with a certain kind of wry humour (again, the first Iron Man is the apotheosis of such an ability) give the film that needed extra humph in these dog days of summer blockbusterdom, and even though the film never can live up to the giddy expectations of that inner fanboy (I mean really, Han Solo and James Bond kicking alien ass in the old west!!) and does have its obvious flaws (mainly on the sci-fi end of things but also in its unfortunate overuse of cliché and stereotypes) it does have a certain something that makes it work, perhaps in spite of itself. [08/03/11]