By Ted Faraone
Helmer Jon Favreau seems to have found his métier as a director of sci-fi flicks. That may be good for his bank account, but not so good for auds. Favreau is a very talented guy who has done just about everything that one can do in film and largely done it well. A few box office hits in the sci-fi genre with bankable stars in the cast (Iron Man and Iron Man 2) have shown him the light. It’s not exactly the headlight of an oncoming train at the end of the tunnel, but he could do better.
Cowboys & Aliens, which opens Friday, July 29, is a silly movie. That is not to say that it isn’t fun to watch. Even the 1936 propaganda film, “Reefer Madness” (a.k.a. Tell Your Children) offers a degree of amusement. But watching “Cowboys & Aliens” is akin to ordering from a Chinese buffet menu — One from column A, two from column B. Pic is a blend of clichés from high-tech sci-fi pix (think “Aliens,” “Priest,” and “Super 8”), a morality tale, and a western, topped off by a sucker-punch to auds delivered by a hummingbird.
It also stars Daniel Craig as bandito Jake Lonnergan who has a bad case of amnesia and Harrison Ford as former Union Army Civil War Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde and current local cattleman and padrone of a one-horse town in the wild American West of 1873. In other words, it was bankable. Dolarhyde is a greedy bastard who has trouble showing emotion. He also has a son, Percy (Paul Dano) who is the local bully. Keith Carradine is perhaps one of pic’s two or three most convincing thesps as the local sheriff. And Olivia Wilde graces the screen as a good space alien — which explains why her eye makeup withstands explosions, physical attack by bad space aliens, and plunges into deep water. Max Factor, eat your heart out! At least she gets a better part than she had in “Priest.”
Throw in a cast of thousands including a plucky kid (Noah Ringer), a loyal dog, a tough-talking minister (Clancy Brown), and an Indian chief (Raoul Trujillo), and a bunch of bad space aliens who look like a cross between the thing from “Super 8” and the acid-blooded creatures from “Aliens,” and shake until the mixing glass is frosty. You get a movie of sorts.
What little humor “Cowboys & Aliens” offers comes from some deadpanned punchlines uttered by Craig, Carradine, and Brown. Dialogue is not pic’s strong suit. Best lines seem to go to Trujillo who allegedly speaks only in the Apache language.
There is a moment in an adventure or crime movie when an experienced filmgoer will say to himself — or to the very attractive and incisive amateur critic seated to his left), “I knew that was going to happen.”
“Cowboys & Aliens” has more than a few.
Pic opens with a wounded Craig waking up in a desolate landscape wearing an odd metal bracelet and being set upon by a trio of bad guys. He dispatches them with super-human dispatch, a gift which serves him well throughout pic’s 118 minutes.
Arriving in the one-horse town, he dispatches the local bully and gets the attention of gun toting Ella (Wilde) and the sheriff, who recognizes him from a “Wanted” poster. What Craig doesn’t remember is that he has stolen gold from Ford and that he was abducted and escaped from the bad space aliens. Evidently amnesia is one of the after-effects of alien abduction.
Just as Craig and Percy the bully (who accidentally shoots a deputy) are about to be handed over to U.S. Marshalls, Ford arrives to spring his kid. At the same time, the bad aliens attack the town with what appear to be jet fighter-bombers. In the process they kidnap about half the inhabitants.
The rest of pic centers on a few revelations (Craig’s memory slowly returns thanks to Ella and some Indian mysticism) and the need for banditi, greedy guys, a good space alien, and the Apache to join forces to defeat the aliens before the planet is taken over for its gold deposits. The bad space aliens arrived on a rocket-powered space ship which contains both gold mining and refining equipment. Like Nazis, they even pull the gold teeth from their captives.
Ending is totally predictable. Harrison Ford’s shell cracks. The “Wanted” poster is forgotten. The bad aliens appear to be dispatched, some good guys die heroic deaths, and the plucky kid comes of age early.
Pic’s sucker punch comes in the form of a hummingbird, a special-effects hummingbird, no less, connected to Ella, which appears to Craig first as he regains his memory and again in the final reel only to scream a figurative “sequel!”
“Cowboys & Aliens” offers more than a few good action scenes. Special effects, save the bad aliens, are not bad. Best effect is Wilde emerging buck naked from a funeral pyre set for her by the Apache. In order to keep pic’s PG-13 rating Craig covers her with an Indian blanket before any more than her fine backside appears on screen. Have no fear in taking the kids.
The morality tale, utterly politically correct in today’s climate, is that greedy people have to set aside their greed and unite with their erstwhile enemies for the common good.
A final note: “Cowboys & Aliens” boasts a list of writers, producers, executive producers, and production companies almost as long as its cast of thousands. With that many cooks, it is no wonder that the stew verges on mish-mash.