Hola all. Massawyrm here.
Easily this summer’s most divisive film, COWBOYS & ALIENS comes at you like a balled fist ready to pummel you into geeky submission. It is, from the outset, a mean, ballsy, fun genre mashup that feels very much like the films of the Seventies and Eighties. The character development is brisk and slick, and the setup leaves you at the end of act one with the promise of one of two films – and the question as to whether you love this or not depends very much upon what you want out of it once the aliens show up. One possibility is a dark, gritty, Carpenteresque film loaded with anti-heroes; the other is a fun, popcorn chomping romp that makes safe, mainstream choices instead of risky ones. Weighing in at a reported $163 Million, you can probably guess which version of the film they went for.
And that’s where the film, for many, will go astray. Act one, as I wrote about seven months ago, is a pitch perfect western. We meet our protagonist (Daniel Craig) a bad man with a sordid history and a problem with his memory, and his foil (Harrison Ford), a grizzled cattle rancher/town patron with a dark past of his own and a son who causes more trouble than he’s worth (Paul Dano). After a feisty series of misfortunes, Craig and Ford are played on opposite sides, with plenty of reasons to hate one another. But when the alien attack forces them to work together, the film then shifts from its seemingly dark roots into much friendlier waters. That’s when it goes from being RIO BRAVO and becomes INDEPENDENCE DAY.
Now for many, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. I, for one, enjoyed the hell out of the goofy mashup. The film is loaded with great characters, each portrayed by a top notch actor, with even the small, most thankless roles filled out with incredible talent. When Craig and Ford aren’t giving it their all, we get Keith Carradine, Clancy Brown, Sam Rockwell, Paul Dano, and Adam Beach all in top form, doing what each does best. No one half asses it here and there’s enough clever writing to give each and every one of them their moment in the sun. But with that much promise on screen - all of whom have proven a number of times that they are adept at dark material - it’s easy to see why some might be pulling for something closer to THE QUICK AND THE DEAD than the STARGATE we end up with.
Compounding matters is an alien menace we don’t get to know very well. They look cool as all hell and they’re mean fuckers, but the fact that Favreau plays them in a hard sci-fi manner – without any sort of ability or desire to communicate with the human characters – we never get to know them outside of why they’re here and what they want. The void left by this problem is no doubt where the conflict between Craig and Ford was meant to fill, but the film begins to cast them both in a very sympathetic light. What appears to be a pair of anti-heroes forced to work together soon becomes a pair of misunderstood characters slowly becoming real heroes against a nigh faceless enemy.
And that’s where the film’s theme kicks into high gear. COWBOYS & ALIENS is a film entirely about redemption. It’s no accident that the film opens in a city named Absolution. Clancy Brown utters the film’s most important line in the first ten minutes: “The Lord don’t care about who you were; he cares about who you are.” Every time the film has a choice of which direction to go, this is the way it always swings. And ultimately, that’s half of what I love about it. This is a summer film with soul. But it is neither a deep message nor a subtle one. And at the end of the day, that proves to be the final nail in the coffin for many.
Do I think this had the potential to be a badass, mean little sci-fi infused western? Sure. But not for this budget, which means not with the cast that makes this what it is. This is a movie bowled right up the middle of what Cineplex goers are looking for – more SILVERADO than ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK. If what you’re hoping for is a lively summer tentpole with great creature effects, awesome action setpieces and some fantastic performances, you’re going to have a great time. But if you want something along the lines of a brooding genre masterpiece, you are going to be sorely disappointed. And I can’t blame you. Favreau made a Hollywood movie through and through, and this doesn’t have enough surprises or bold choices to make it anywhere near a classic. It’s fun – a lot of fun – and little more.
Until next time friends,