'Cowboys & Aliens': Conventionally Entertaining
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
If it were strictly a Western, "Cowboys & Aliens" would be nothing special, and if it were strictly a sci-fi invasion picture, it would be no great shakes either. And truth to tell, the you-got-your-genre-chocolate-in-my-genre-peanut-butter hybrid of "Cowboys & Aliens," in which some relatively primitive (by contemporary standards, such as they are) but reliably nasty and aggressive E.T.s lay siege to a dusty late-19th-century American mining town, is in a whole lot of respects a "could have been better" proposition. But rather than bemoan wasted potential, let's take this time to celebrate what solid virtues the film has to offer.
First off is Daniel Craig as the hero, a guy who wakes up in the heated sere brush of the American West with a wound in his right side, a bizarre bracelet-like contraption on his left wrist, and no memory of who he is or how he got there or just how he's able to kick the crap out of the three tobacco-spitting skeeveballs who confront him on horseback shortly after he comes to. The highly buffed-up Craig is one of those actors who looks like he could remove your clavicle by hand while reciting any number of Shakespeare soliloquies and not miss a beat at either task. Here, he does just right by his Man With No Name-ish character, only his guy is a trifle less on the sardonic side.
The somewhat more-complicated-than-they-need-be-when-you-come-right-down-to-it plot points that follow bring in the motley cohorts in what will be his fight for Earth and, as it happens, journey of self-discovery (for the two turn out to be linked, you see!): There's a foxy woman of mystery (Olivia Wilde); a milquetoast barkeep who, as the conventions of both genres at work here relentlessly tell us, will have to step up and prove his manhood at some point (Sam Rockwell); and a bunch of other archetypes, the most vivid of which is sketched by, yes, Harrison Ford, playing a ruthless cattle baron who was also a colonel at Antietam and whose seemingly unthinking sadism and cruelty mask a noble soul who is sorely tired of war but who still has fight in him. The character is the "meh" news; the good news is that Ford portrays him in the style we know and love, albeit a little more sour, which is in fact quite appropriate to the actor's age.
The fight with the aliens begins properly after a bunch of their aircraft -- which kinda look like the tie-fighters from the early "Star Wars" pictures crossed with fighter jets of the '50s -- kidnap a goodly portion of the town, including the barkeep's wife, the cattle baron's crapulent ne'er-do-well son (played by Paul Dano, in his second Western released this year -- the other is the slightly slower "Meek's Cutoff"), and the town's sheriff (Keith Carradine, who was in the latter-day Western classic "The Long Riders" and whose dad was in a little picture called "Stagecoach"). Craig's tough guy forges an alliance with Ford's tough guy, and off the posse rides, picking up a gang of outlaws and a tribe of Indians on route to the location of the aliens' ship/mining facility for a climactic face-off.
No Leone-style mounting suspense montage here, nor any Ford-like real-time action kineticism; no, director Jon Favreau, of "Iron Man" renown, shoots and cuts the action scenes in the same hyperdrive fashion that so many of us critics like to complain about, slowing things down only when standard Hollywood emotional opportunism bids him so (e.g., when a child is endangered by one of the icky aliens). What makes the movie work, really, is that above and beyond the conventions themselves doing their jobs, the actors seem truly invested in trying to convey what characters in a Western would do if confronted by aliens. That they succeed in taking the viewers on that journey with them is the precise extent to which "Cowboys & Aliens" becomes something special.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.