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Josh Reviews Cowboys and Aliens

August 17th, 2011

Despite the silly title, I had pretty high hopes for Cowboys and Aliens.  The idea of uniting Daniel Craig (James Bond) and Harrison Ford (Indiana Jones/Han Solo) is genius, and the film boasted a strong supporting cast, a solid director (Jon Favreau, who directed the magnificent first Iron Man film), and the trailer boasted of some nifty special effects and fun sci-fi action.

But in the end, I was disappointed.  Cowboys and Aliens isn’t terrible, but it’s pretty mediocre.  Though Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have a great eye for material (they have been involved with a number of geek properties that interest me, including Star Trek and Transformers) and they seem like nice fellows, I have not liked any of the scripts that they have written.  And I’m starting to wonder if I haven’t over-estimated Jon Favreau in my mind.  He’s a terrific actor and a very funny guy, but in the end he’s really only directed one film (the first Iron Man) that I’ve really loved.

The main problem with Cowboys and Aliens is that the movie has no teeth.  The first 20-25 minutes promise us a confrontation between two tough bad-asses, Craid and Ford, in the midst of some crazy sci-fi mayhem, but that never comes. 

The opening scene to the film is terrific, and it immediately establishes Daniel Craig’s character as a dangerous, kick-ass dude.  We open the film at the moment that Daniel Craig wakes up, in the middle of the desert, with a bizarre technological device attached to his wrist, and no memory of how it got there or of any events that happened before he woke up.  He can’t even remember his own game.  Moments later, some tough guys find him and threaten to kill him, but in a quick, brutal action scene, Craig wipes them out.  It’s a great set-up to his character, and a terrific way to open the movie.

We then spend a while hearing about Harrison Ford’s character, Colonel Dolarhyde (but don’t call him Colonel!).  He is built up as a man to be feared, and when we finally meet him in the flesh, we see Dolarhyde mercilessly torturing an unfortunate soul who Dolarhyde believes has betrayed him. 

We all know that these two characters are on a collision course, and when the sci-fi menace (that we know is coming) rears its ugly head, I was excited to see these two take-no-prisoners mean bastards, played by two movie icons, collide with one another. 

That would have been an awesome movie!!  But that’s not at all what we got.  The film immediately backs off from the toughness of those two characters, and quickly shows us that they’re both really softies underneath their gruff exteriors.  In a very short time, instead of the intense film I was expecting, we’re in a very family-friendly story in which our two heroes, accompanied by a colorful group — including a bartender/doctor, a priest, a girl, a kid, and even a little dog — head off on an adventure.

One thing I can always say about Jon Favreau is that he has a great eye for casting, and he has once again put together a great ensemble of geek icons to fill out the roles in his film.  Having Craig and Ford in the lead roles is, I’ll say it again, a genius idea.  But I was even more excited to see the great Clancy Brown in the film (as the tough preacher Meacham), along with the always fun Sam Rockwell (as the bartender/doctor who imdb lists simply as “doc”).  The film also stars Olivia Wilde (flying high on the geek radar these days after her role in this and Tron: Legacy), Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood), and some other fine actors.  But all of the characters felt fairly superificial to me — more like familiar archetypes rather than actual living, breathing individuals.  There are some fun moments with this great cast, don’t get me wrong, but I didn’t think any of it held together that strongly.

I certainly can think of worse ways to spend two hours than watching Cowboys and Aliens.  It’s fun, light-hearted entertainment.  But with the caliber of people involved in its production, and the wonderfully simple, clever premise indicated by the on-the-nose title, I expected a lot more.

If you want to watch a really phenomenal combination of western and sci-fi tropes, go out and watch Joss Whedon’s late, much-lamented Firefly.

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