If you’re not aware of ‘Cowboys and Aliens’ origins, there’s a moment of terror in the opening credits, where the concept is credited to a media company. Oh dear god, you think, it’s based on a game…
Actually, it’s not. Phew. It’s based on a graphic novel which, admittedly, is a genre that doesn’t have that much greater a strike rate in terms of successful movie adaptations. Still, when it comes with this sort of pedigree – James Bond, Indiana Jones and directed by the chap behind Iron Man – chances are it’s going to be pretty decent. And, frankly, that’s what it is. It’s not great. It’s not terrible. It’s pretty decent, agreeably silly, entertainment.
The film starts with Daniel Craig coming round somewhere in the wilds of the Wild West. He has no idea who he is, or how he came to be there, who the girl is in the photo next to him or, most importantly, what the chunky bracelet on his wrist is for. What he does remember though, as a family of bounty hunters rapidly discovers, is how to whoop collective arse.
It turns out that he’s Jake Lonergan, a man wanted for all sorts of bad things. Thanks to a run in with Percy Dolarhyde (Dano) in the cattle town of Absolution, Jake’s now wanted by the law AND Percy’s father Woodrow (Ford), the business man with Absolution in his pocket. Fortunately for Jake, there’s a distraction a’comin, one you can probably guess from the title of the film. UFOs attack, lasso assorted locals – a lovely high concept twist – and whisk them off for… well, who knows? All the townsfolk know is it can’t be good and so assemble a posse to go get their loved ones back. Jake is forced to go along because that bracelet appears to be the only weapon capable of stopping the extraterrestrial rustlers.
Did someone say high concept? Oh. Yes. I did. About two lines ago. As the name suggests, ‘Cowboys and Aliens’ is the highest of high concepts, a blending of genres that wouldn’t normally go together. For the most part, while it’s playing around with western conventions, there’s some fun to be had. It’s only in the cold light of the foyer that it starts to fall apart and the flaws become more apparent.
The biggest of these is the lack of combined screen time for Craig and Ford. They spar effectively when together but these moments are all too rare. You then start to notice the lack of screen time for the excellent supporting cast, with both Rockwell and, particularly, Dano underused. (On that note, has there ever been a character called Percy who WASN’T an odious little shit? Just wondering…) Olivia Wilde gets to look beautiful as the mysterious, oddly knowledgeable Ella, but the jury’s still out on what more she might be capable of beyond cold love interest / eye candy.
All told though, Favreau keeps things ticking along though, and the narrative – with its instagram-esque flashbacks as Jake remembers how he’s met the aliens before – covers all the basics of the genre, while also throwing in some adult themes and bits of Independence Day. It is, inevitably, a bit of a mishmash but, from behind a barrel of Coke and a suitcase sized portion of popcorn, it’s perfectly acceptable for what it is.