Saturday, 10 September 2011

The New(ish) Review: Cowboys & Aliens

I’m not so sure what mindset I needed to be in for this. On the one hand, you’ve got the combined talents of Iron Man director Jon Favreau and actors Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford bolstered by a good supporting cast. But on the other hand, well... it’s called Cowboys & Aliens.

Jake Lonergan (Craig) bolts upright in the middle of the desert with no memory of how he got there, and no knowledge of the strange metal device stuck on his arm. After eventually making his way to a nearby town, he almost immediately runs afoul of not only the law, but also powerful local cattle rancher, Woodrow Dolarhyde (Ford). Right when it seems we’re in for a by-the-numbers Western story, aliens arrive (wait, what?!) and abduct numerous town folk before flying off into the distance. Putting their differences aside, Jake and Dolarhyde assemble a motley crew and set out to get their people back, while learning the truth behind the invaders along the way.       

On paper, it sounds great! But considering the potential pitfalls of a genre mash-up such as this, am I meant to expect a staggeringly original masterpiece or an unmitigated disaster? As it turns out, I thought the end result wound up somewhere in the middle. Not a complete train wreck, but also far from great. Because there are problems.

The first one you’re likely notice is the terrifying number of clichéd characters. Daniel Craig’s ‘man with no name for the first twenty minutes’ is the same kind of strong, silent don’t-take-no-crap-from-anyone type we’ve seen a hundred and one times before. Same goes for Harrison Ford’s gruff Dolarhyde, who begins the film as a total bastard but gradually softens as time goes by. The secondary characters don’t help matters much. There’s a cowardly saloon owner (Sam Rockwell) with an all-too obvious character arc; the wizened preacher (Clancy Brown) who nurses our hero back to health; and the mysterious woman (Olivia Wilde) who hides a secret agenda of her own.

On top of that, there are some questionable casting choices. Sam Rockwell is usually the kind of guy who gets to play eccentric or highly emotional roles, but here his abilities appear lost in such a bland character. He gets to fret over his missing wife a bit, but that’s your lot. Also, and maybe it’s just because I’ve seen Highlander one too many times, but I don’t really buy Clancy Brown in the kindly priest role which in no way, shape or form reminds me of old Ben Kenobi. I’m not saying either of them do a bad job in their roles – each in fact gives it their best – it’s merely that they’re not playing to their strengths; and so they end up being wasted.

After all, wouldn’t you want to see Brown playing an alien leader? I know I would... so long as he doesn’t come from anywhere called Zeist.
 Another time, Lonergan!!!

Cowboys & Aliens also has a slight obsession with the art of set-up and pay-off. For instance, there’s absolutely no way that initially awkward relationship between Dolarhyde and his kidnapped son’s best friend who happens to be of native descent will ever develop into something more meaningful. Or I’m sure that one knife Dolarhyde (again) keeps harping on about to that one kid won’t end up being later used in a life or death situation (really though, you will be waiting almost the entire film for that thing to live up to its seemingly enormous potential). It’s not Tron Legacy levels of predictability, but it’s knocking on the door.

Then there’s the pacing. Or lack of. The film doesn’t so much grind to a halt as it does simply break down on a number of occasions.  A chief example being when an ENTIRE TRIBE of Native Americans (am I allowed to type ‘Injuns’?) appears right out of nowhere after one major action scene. I know a lot of people say the Ewoks slowed Return of the Jedi right down, but they should check this out before knocking Endor’s finest.

Their late and very convenient arrival into the plot is simply a means of getting to that all-important exposition scene. In it, and thanks to the application of some herbal tea, we learn more or less everything about anything... and none of it satisfies. Previous murky flashbacks told us almost all we needed to know about what happened to Jake, so the official explanation holds few surprises; and upon learning why the aliens came here in the first place, Harrison Ford accurately mimics the audience at that point by baulking “Well, that’s just ridiculous!” It’s a reveal which doesn’t do much good for the aliens’ image. Finally, the secret behind Wilde’s character comes far too out of left field (even for a film like this) to be convincing; and is never properly built upon either.

By now, you may have noticed how I’ve only had bad things to note about Cowboys & Aliens. But the funny thing is... I actually really quite liked it. It’s got flaws up the wazoo, there’s no denying it, but they didn’t do much to damage my overall enjoyment of the film.

Because how could I not, at least on some primordial level, enjoy a movie about cowboys taking on otherworldly villains? Simply being able to watch something that combines two of my favourite genres is more than enough to put a smile on my face. It’s a B-Movie, pure and simple; and something tells me the filmmakers were well aware of this.

I know I went on about all the clichéd characters, but even that’s not such a big deal thanks to the efforts of the two main leads. It would have been far too easy for Craig and Ford to phone in their performances, but they really do sell their characters through a combination of earnest acting and keeping their tongues firmly within cheek. Same goes for the rest of the cast, with the only real weak link being Wilde (but only because she has next to nothing to do). Favreau’s direction is as reliable as ever, too; and is what ultimately keeps the film from falling apart.

Special mention has to go to Industrial Light and Magic, who once again deliver outstanding special effects. Here, they’ve brought to life one of the most convincing alien species I’ve seen in a while. While quite basic in design, they’re still a highly believable threat to our heroes – all tall, green, toothy and quivering with slimy muscles. So I could easily see one of them walking through Mos Eisley spaceport. Though it is slightly odd how, for such a clearly advanced space-faring race, they still fight like savage animals during the later action scenes.

Speaking of which, Cowboys & Aliens sure doesn’t compromise when the going gets rough. Despite having a 12A/PG13 rating, the action here is nothing short of brutal. The opening sequence alone results in three very dead men, including one who gets a wince-inducing facial pounding from Craig. From then on, people are frequently shot or clawed at with violent results, while alien goo splatters all over the place. Overall, there’s a very practical and hands-on feel to the action, with no horrific shakey-cam style editing to worry about.  

And the best part? This has ‘Cult Classic’ stamped all over it. I’m calling it now - in twenty years time, and at least four direct to video sequels later, this will be looked back on as an underappreciated cinematic gem and placed on a pedestal by its small, yet hardcore fan base.

You heard it here first!                

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