By Richard von Busack
Its high concept idea is thoroughly chewed over by a group of writers, certainly exceeding the already big number of scriptwriters credited. Cowboys and Aliens never rises above its generic title, or its air of being an assignment handed down by a producer. (Steven Spielberg is involved, and yes, he does manage to work the Nazis into the story, through a visual reference to their wartime crimes). Lightly based on a comic book, it seems really to have been based on the advertisement on a comic book’s back page: 300 plastic cowboys and aliens for $1…that sum adjusted for inflation.
It’s a movie that reflects movie-watching trends: it plays like the result of someone watching two separate movies on TV, flicking between them: a bug-hunt on one channel, an overdressed western on the other.
Daniel Craig plays Jake, an amnesiac gunslinger. He’s a stranger in a small, bad New Mexico town where the gold mine has petered out. Stabbed, sore-headed and barefoot when he wakes, Jake’s new accessory is an alien bracelet he can neither remove nor explain. Three outlaws assault him, but he makes short work of them and takes their clothes. He’s fond of the new hat he got off of one of the robbers; just as Bond’s gesture is the adjustment of his tie after a fight, Jake always makes sure his hat is blocked and level.
As soon as he arrives in town, Jake crosses the path of the psycho son of the town’s cattle-ranching boss: Paul Dano is very promising as Percy, a Billy the Kid type. But he’s just a sideshow for the first attack of the saucers. At night, alien aircraft attack, sweeping up the villagers with metal lariats, and blowing up half the town. Flushed out, the ensemble heads out into the desert: the only hope of defense is the strange alien weapon fastened on Jake’s wrist.
The town’s boss Col. Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) comes with them too; his Dick Cheney-worthy grumpusing is explained too thoroughly as the result of PTSD from the Civil War, and from cleaning up an Apache massacres. The citizens are under attack: flying machines blast them, and saurian, terrapin-headed aliens with huge sharp teeth lunge out of nowhere at them.
The background characters haven’t changed much since the old days; among them, the smiling but easily spooked Mexican and Dolarhyde’s too-eager-to-please Indian surrogate son played by Adam Beach. Beach has the 1950s western male ingénue part, the one whose too-strict cowman father is tearing him apart. But Beach is so gentle you wonder how he could have lasted so long with such an ornery father-figure.
There are few of the stock actors around today, with whom you once could have filled a western town. Almost the last representative is Keith Carradine, whose knightly bearing as an outgunned sheriff damn near steals the picture. David O’Hara, as a rebellious member of Jake’s former gang, is probably the most legitimately dangerous looking figure in the film besides the two leads.
Craig’s pinprick eyes look sharp in strong sunlight, and he’s all muscle and sinew. He doesn’t have enough dialogue to have to wrestle with his accent. He tries to do Eastwood; Craig probably has more resources as an actor. And he is very game; there’s an explosion at the end of the film that goes off very close to Craig, showering him with a load of dust; it may possibly have been more explosion than the director bargained for.
I wish there could have been a more developed attraction between Craig’s Jake and Ella (Olivia Wilde) the saloon girl who won’t be shooed away. Essential to the quality of being called hot by everyone on the Internet is a certain coolness. And essential to coolness is lack of expression. In that sense, Wilde is as hot as she’s been called. (It may just be that she has the hardest time trying to react to the spot where the CGI is going to be.)
Cowboys and Aliens takes two genres and strangely makes them both look exhausted. If it had to be done, the ideal version of Cowboys and Aliens would be something like Buckaroo Banzai (or to make a more recent example, something like the tone of Zombieland). Straight-faced stoner adventure might have made this diverting, with the uncanny aliens faced down by the confidentially laconic gunslingers. And the all-wise Indians would be completely on top of the situation.
But Cowboys and Aliens is meant to be taken seriously, as a metaphor for how the west was spoiled. Since director Jon Favreau’s roots are as a comedy director, it’s strange how anxious this movie is not to be laughed at. The few jokes here are uneasy. It’s self-conscious in the heroic moments (such as a borrowing of the finale of True Grit). And it’s just as nervous in the quiet moments: one character at loose ends saying, “maybe we could sing a song, or cook some beans…” As that other movie alien once said, “Do, or do not. There is no try.”