Arizona, 1873. A man (Craig) awakens in the sparse hinterland of one-horse town Absolution, with no memory, a weird wound and a strange manacle on one wrist. Early on his journey of self-rediscovery, he discovers he’s wanted criminal Jake Lonergan, and that he was abducted by “demons” — like so many of Absolution’s inhabitants. Together with town boss Woodrow Dolarhyde (Ford), he and a posse set out to free their kidnapped loved ones from the strange creatures from “above the stars”...
Cowboys & Aliens is the second of two mavericks among 2011’s summer-blockbuster herd — the other being its Paramount-funded, Spielberg-produced sibling Super 8 (which, interestingly, also centres around retro-smalltown alien abduction). While based (loosely) on a comic book, Cowboys & Aliens hardly has the following Marvel-movie newcomers Thor and Captain America enjoy, and even poor old Green Lantern was a better-known title. This is neither sequel nor reboot, bravely striving for rear-ends on multiplex seats with barely any ‘brand awareness’ (ugh) and a negligible built-in audience.
It also comes as part of a distinctly dodgy subgenre: the weird Western. Wild Wild West (steampunk Western) failed big back in ’99; Jonah Hex (supernatural steampunk Western) died on its prosthetics-marred ass only last year. You’d have to go back as far as Near Dark to find a satisfying and successful example. Nope, summer 2011 seems hardly the smartest time to go West.
So here’s some good news: Cowboys & Aliens is no turkey in a ten gallon hat. Whether it finds its audience remains to be seen, but in a world where charmless robots fisting each other break box-office records, it sure deserves to. Directed by Jon Favreau, as much harking back to 2005’s overlooked Zathura as his Iron Man, the film puts its not-too-many human characters front and centre, offering a straightforward, linear plot, lean rather than bloated and which, while skipping over a few gaping holes, largely makes sense. It delivers, along the way, pleasing action sequences during which you can actually make out what’s going on — mainly because it’s not in murky, motion-blurring 3D. The visual effects meanwhile assist rather than burden the storytelling, adding to the atmosphere rather than sucking it out. It’s not groundbreaking, it’s not perfect, but it’s traditional and charming, and that counts for a lot.
It also feels refreshingly unsterilised. The lead character smokes. There is a scene in which a child is given a knife as a gift, and later uses it to stab an alien to death (er, hooray for knives!). The whole thing has a gritty, sweaty, blood-smeared look, recalling the revisionist oaters of the late ’60s onwards rather than the crisper offerings of the genre’s golden age. This ain’t aliens versus Shane; it’s aliens versus The Man With No Name and The Wild Bunch.
There are also, at times, moments of horror. One scene involves a conscious woman being dissected by one of Favreau’s slimy monsters (think weaponised frog crossed with cockroach), before it incinerates her from the face down. That’s the most surprising thing about the film: it’s more gritty and harsh than the daft but enticing title suggests. Bullets, arrows, spears, teeth and claws puncture flesh with gouts of blood, wounds need sewing up and spent gun barrels sear skin. One action beat even sees an alien being messily offed by dynamite… tethered to a dagger.
As Clint-esque amnesiac bad-hat Jake Lonergan, Daniel Craig is an intense presence, laconic, simmering and brutal, a creature of bone-snapping action rather than whip-smart wit. Alongside him we have Harrison Ford’s town-bullying ranch-man who gear-shifts from leathery grump mode at the film’s start to something with a glimmer of his Dr. Jones twinkle. His occasional interjections prove welcome, including one which it’s tempting to suggest was the actor’s own reaction to the script, when it’s revealed at a campfire conflab that the green, bug-eyed interlopers are on Earth because there’s gold in that thar planet: “That’s ridiculous,” he growls, “what are they gonna do with it? Buy things?”
Even so, it’s a dour pairing, both characters defined by loss, tragedy and inky-dark pasts rather than upbeat, go-get-’em swagger. There’s none of the Iron Man films’ sense of irreverence here — just grim people dealing with a grim situation. There’s little lightness from the supporting cast, either. Olivia Wilde is a shimmering, otherworldly presence in a multi-layered yet underwritten romantic-interest role (see also: Tron Legacy), Sam Rockwell jitters and whines as a rattled barkeep and Adam Beach pines for a father-figure as one of Ford’s stooges. We’d never ask for a mugging comic-relief character to be shoe-horned in, or that everyone should play it with their tongue in their cheek, but a bit more levity from the edges would have complemented the hard core well.
A simple entertainment in a summer of overcomplicated disappointments. Also much harder-edged than you may have expected.