Call me silly, but I thought a movie titled Cowboys & Aliens might be fun.
For a film that features extraterrestrials lassoing cowpokes (and vice versa), Cowboys & Aliens is a surprisingly grim, clenched-jaw experience. The movie is mostly interested in monster effects, abduction victims and the angst-ridden redemption of its outlaw-turned-hero (Daniel Craig). It’s a bit like the 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Predator, but without the laughs.
I suppose it’s not fair to criticize a picture for failing at something it never meant to achieve. Director Jon Favreau and his team of screenwriters based Cowboys & Aliens on a 2006 graphic novel and he’s been clear in interviews that it was always intended to be a straight-faced action mashup. On those terms, it’s average at best. It really depends on whether or not you give the movie extra points simply because the guys pointing guns this time are wearing cowboy hats.
Because Cowboys & Aliens never really grabs you – because it lacks the straight-up intensity of, say, Aliens – your mind starts to wander, mulling the other, better films it could have been.
An old-fashioned Western is one of these. The first 20 minutes – featuring Craig as a wounded tough guy with amnesia who walks into a desert town – are the most engaging in the film. With his naturally hunted demeanor, Craig has the desperado drifter look down. He even manages to wring tension out of a familiar saloon showdown. As a fan of Westerns, I was perfectly happy with Cowboys & Aliens, at least until the aliens showed up.
With its sublimely ridiculous premise, however, Cowboys & Aliens’ true calling was to be a rollicking, audience-rousing action comedy, less a mashup of Predator and Unforgiven than a mashup of Shanghai Noon and Men in Black. The right people were in place to pull this off. Harrison Ford – who managed a jaunty demeanor throughout the Indiana Jones films – sounded like perfect casting, until you realize he’s been given an extraneous part as a grouchy cattle baron. Meanwhile, Favreau – whose Iron Man was loose, light-hearted and witty – jettisons that tone and goes out of his way to downplay scenes that are ripe for good-natured laughs.
Indeed, much of Cowboys & Aliens plays as if it’s being held in check. When Craig’s gunslinger leaps from his horse onto a low-flying spacecraft, the movie depicts it with a macho matter-of-factness rather than embracing the exhilarating ludicrousness of such an act. Throughout, frivolity is shunned in favor of a stern demeanor. Never mind the extraterrestrials and cowpokes; it’s as if the movie itself has been lassoed.