BUSAN, South Korea — With a title like ‘Cowboys & Aliens’, it would be easy to mistake director Jon Favreau’s (Iron Man 1 & 2) Sci-Fi/Western genre mash-up for B-movie schlock. It’s such a strongly obtuse title; one that almost drove away its leading stars, Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig. What ultimately captured their interest (and mine) in the project was Favreau’s promise to “play it straight”. The result is a Western film with a wholly authentic feel…that just happens to have aliens in it.
‘Cowboys & Aliens’ opens with Daniel Craig’s “mysterious stranger” character awaking in the desert to find that he has no recollection of past events. He doesn’t know who he is or how he came to be in the desert; nor does he have any clue as to what the thick iron bracelet is that is clamped to his wrist. He sets off into town in an attempt to piece the mystery together, and promptly discovers that he’s a wanted man by the authorities. The “mysterious stranger” quickly learns that he is actually Jake Lonergan, a man wanted for robbery and murder. This, of course, sounds like the basic premise to nearly every Western ever made; except that when Harrison Ford’s cattleman tycoon Woodrow Dollarhyde comes to claim Lonergan for his crimes, the town is suddenly attacked by flying ships from the sky.
There’s something to be said for a film that successfully merges the Western genre with Sci-fi elements. Creating a tone that is true to the setting and characters while simultaneously introducing something as absurd and implausible as aliens would initially seem like an exercise in futility. It’s a balancing act like no other, and Favreau knows this. He’s aware that he’s allowed very few missteps before he risks losing his audience entirely. This is why he relies on his outstanding cast, Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wild, Sam Rockwell, and others to work with their characters in a robust and believable manner. The two leads are compelling, helped largely by the gargantuan screen presence of Craig and Ford. If you can’t find yourself invested in Jake Lonergen from the moment he wakes in the desert, or if you can’t identify with Woodrow Dollarhyde’s “cold exterior with father issues”, you’re in for a long two hours. The rest of the cast is uniformly strong, every one of them feeling authentic and helping to add to the stakes set by the plot.
The build-up is a slow burn, the pacing tuned to the notes of any good Western, though this isn’t the summers most exciting blockbuster. The action serves the plot, so it never feels as though you’re being repeatedly smacked over the head with it. There is a deliberateness to the first act that only gives the subtlest of hints that malevolent forces are at work. With its chosen tone firmly in place, and character arcs that pay off in spades with a very satisfying conclusion, the film is solid throughout. My initial impressions of the films potential for being the “be all, end all” movie event of the summer were somewhat overblown, though. ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ avoids the stupidity; wisecracks such as “Welcome to Earf!” (Will Smith, anyone?) and dopey caricatures are, thankfully, quite absent. One does, however, come away with the feeling that there should have been something more. The framework is laid for a very good movie, but the potential to turn it into something truly great just doesn’t come to fruition. Don’t mistake this for a major gripe; I strongly recommend this to fans of either genre, and anyone who loves to see Daniel Craig or Harrison Ford on the silver screen is advised to see this while they have a chance.
To be perfectly frank, this is shaping up to be one of the most disappointing summers for movies in recent memory. When the box office is slow in North America, it tends to be even slower here in South Korea. That is to say, the more bad films are released back home, the slimmer the pickings are here in the RoK. Thankfully, despite the mixed critical reaction and disappointing box office numbers (‘The Smurfs’ beat it in its opening weekend, go figure), ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ is very much worth your time if you’re looking for a well crafted film with strong actors. Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig certainly earned their paychecks with this one, and I’d be inclined to watch it again for their performances alone. It’s not as great as I was hoping it would be, but we’re talking about a film entitled ‘Cowboys & Aliens’. What we should have been expecting was something a lot worse than what we got.
You can read more of Thomas Bellmore's take on film here.