Cowboys And Aliens (2011) Review with Some Slight Spoilers

First and foremost, Olivia Wilde looks great in a cowboy hat….

Oh. And Cowboys and Aliens is a first rate popcorn movie that blows the recent crop of summer superhero films out of the water. In fact, I think this is Jon Favreau’s best film. Even with the extremely hokey title and subject matter, the film is taken seriously by all of the filmmakers involved. Throw in the caliber of actors that this one has and it elevates from a flimsy (and generic) sci-fi fantasy to a movie that actually has a little weight to it.

Cowboys & Aliens looks like a proper movie, unlike a lot of CGI films that were shot in green screen studios. The western backdrop gives the look of a real film. I can imagine Zack Snyder’s version of this with smokey green-yellow skies and lots of slow motion closeups of cowboys drawing their guns while leaping 50 feet over a charging alien army. Ack!

This could have very easily been made into a straight western. A very good western with the talents involved.

The story opens with a man (Daniel Craig) that awakens out on the western plains. He’s barefoot and has a strange (especially for the 1800s) bracelet on his left wrist that he can’t remove. The worst thing for him is that he can’t remember anything and when a group of mercenary-types ride up on him, they think he may be an escaped convict. In hopes that he may have a price on his head, they attempt to forcibly take him prisoner. He defends himself and kills all three men (but Favreau makes it palatable by having the three men shown to have indian scalps on them…).

I liked Craig as much in this as I liked him in Casino Royale. He has the hard nosed look of a classic gunfighter and he has no problems dropping the accent. He looks a bit haggard and has enough grime on his face throughout the film that he would have fit in very well with the characters in that Aussie western “The Proposition” where everyone seemed to be covered in sweat, blood and dirt. Craig generally plays characters with a harder edge and he does that here. His character is singleminded in his purposes.

So, the nameless man rides into the town of Absolution that at first seems like a ghost town for unexplained reasons. He lets himself in to one of the establishments only to be held at gunpoint again, this time by Meachum, a preacher played by the always interesting Clancy Brown. Brown usually plays heavies and bad guys so this was different. Meachum quickly realizes that Craig’s amnesiac isn’t a threat and helps him. Then there’s gunfire outside and people suddenly fill the formerly empty streets. A local hooligan (Paul Dano) is causing trouble with random gunfire and ends up trying to shakedown the rest of the citizens. He is the son of a local power player, the appropriately named Dolarhyde (played by superstar Harrison Ford) who is away on business. Craig’s mystery man defuses the situation and the young Dolarhyde ends up in jail.

The town’s lawman (Keith Carradine) thanks the man with no name, but soon realizes who the man is. He and his deputies try to arrest the man unsuccessfully until an equally mysterious woman named Ella (played by the sexy Olivia Wilde) gets involved.

I think this character  suits Wilde more than when I last saw her in Tron:Legacy. She plays smart far better than she plays dumb. And her Ella is even smarter than she lets on. She’s a bright spot in a good movie. Favreau let her shine mostly without the obnoxious ‘Grrrrl Power!’ feminism that’s prevalent in many summer films now. Wilde didn’t need that to stand out in the film and if there’s a sequel, I would hope they’d bring her back in some capacity.

Ella keeps quiet while the stranger is being locked up. He and Dano’s character are being shipped off to another town to face a judge and jury. As they’re set to leave by prison stagecoach, the elder Dolarhyde and his men show up.

Harrison Ford plays a character that he hasn’t often played . As he said in an interview for imdb, he didn’t have to maintain the sympathies of the audience, “which is the obligation of the leading man in many cases”. He plays Dolarhyde as equally hard nosed as Craig’s character. He’s a businessman, but it he’s fully capable of breaking the law to get what he wants.

Dolarhyde has problems of his own, thinking one of his men killed two of his employees and blow up a herd of cattle in a drunken stupor, but when he aggressively arrives in Absolution he’s not just looking to get his son out of jail;  he wants the other prisoner, too. They have a history. Just when things are about to get really ugly, the other half of the title shows up and all Hell breaks loose.

I don’t usually get this intricate when describing story events. I think movies are best when they are viewed without prior information of what’s going to happen, so to continue in this vein would be giving away too much.

The movie worked, for me. It does not have the mindless CGI action scene every 7 minutes as other contemporary summer films have. I read in a snippet of someone else’s review (that did not like the film), that there is a long 2o minute lull early in the feature, but I disagree strongly. That’s only if you’ve been weened on the mindless MTV music video editing style and believe that’s the only way a film can be made.

Favreau’s film takes its time in setting up all of the key elements. He doesn’t reveal everything all at once. He lets the story unfold naturally. he takes his time in establishing the various supporting characters.

Favreau  didn’t have to try very hard to make the background characters memorable, casting actors who have all played lead roles like Sam Rockwell, Adam Beach (“Hey, Victor”) and Keith Carradine in smaller roles. Even that kid from The Last Airbender (Noah Ringer) played a lead. It actually aggravated me every time Ringer appeared on screen, because I had seen him before and couldn’t place the movie. It was the hair, I guess.

There are some weaknesses to the movie, but they’re minor in the grand scope of the movie. One, I don’t think Favreau handles scenes well where several things are happening at once, and it’s very evident in the battle scenes that involved the initial posse, a tribe of indians, a large group of outlaws and the malevolent aliens. I think it could have used a little more editing, also. It started getting repetitive and at times felt like the number of people present was 30 times what it was.

You never got a good feeling of where the action was occurring. Sometimes Ford (for example) would be depicted being overwhelmed by aliens, the film would cut away, then cut back to Ford riding free again. Favreau’s films seem to extend themselves for the sake of it sometimes, like he’s afraid that the people watching won’t feel like they got their money’s worth if the fight scene ends too quickly.

Something else that happened (and it may just be me) was that it looked like one story thread was being set up early that what Craig’s character was being accused of was just a misunderstanding, that what he was accused of was the work of the aliens. That seemed to be revealed too early since the aliens’ modus operandi had already been shown. But then you find out that he actually did steal gold and had a gang of outlaws.

But that he was wanted for his girlfriend’s murder made no sense then, because she was killed by the aliens in their secret lair. Maybe I’m just overthinking it.

You can also tell the film has comic-bookish origins just by the names in the story. Just like in the Road To Perdition, the story’s leads and even the Town where they inhabit blatantly signal who the character’s are. They might not be as fitting in this one, however, since some of the characters act in ways that are opposite of what their name prescribes.

All of these are minor complaints, though. The entire cast make the movie fun even without aliens onscreen. Cowboys and Aliens is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.

If all of the principles came back I’d like to see a sequel. There, I said it. A sequel.

4.5 of 5 


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