by HELEN GEIB
A man wakes up in the New Mexico desert. He has amnesia. He also has the instincts and reflexes of a gunfighter, a photograph of a woman, and a strange metal cuff on his left wrist. He wanders into the nearest town. They recognize him there. It’s not a happy reunion. That night the town is attacked by raiders in mysterious airships and many people are taken. A posse is formed. The man travels with them. After the first bad night on the trail, only the stalwart few regroup to continue the search.
Indulge me for a moment while I talk about what I thought Cowboys & Aliens would be and what it turned out to be. As far as the basic premise goes, the movie is exactly what I expected; after all, the title screams mash-up of Westerns and alien invasion sci-fi. Because it’s a mash-up I mostly thought it would be wild and crazy, probably tongue-in-cheek, or much less likely but still possible, a somewhat serious-minded revisionist take on the “cowboys and Indians” subgenre.
Cowboys & Aliens is a standard fare Western. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t say that like it’s a bad thing. I like Westerns. On the available evidence, director Jon Favreau and just about everyone else involved in making Cowboys & Aliens likes Westerns too. It’s entertaining and I enjoyed watching a new Hollywood Western playing up there on the big screen at my local multiplex. But it’s hard to see the aliens as much else than a gimmick designed to secure funding for a big-budget movie in a moribund genre.
The fairest verdict on the story is probably to say that it gets the job done. I would have liked something a bit less predictable.* On the other hand, I can see how an old standby Western plot could seem fresh and new to many in the audience, including most people under 40.
The script does contribute some sharp dialogue and it’s a pleasure to watch the fine cast deliver it. Daniel Craig plays his amnesiac outlaw as a classic good-badman. Harrison Ford is in excellent character actor form as the crusty rancher and Civil War veteran who’s been throwing his weight around town for far too long; interestingly and unexpectedly, the old man is the film’s most complex character. The ever appealing Adam Beach is his underappreciated right hand man, while the ever reliable Sam Rockwell is a treat as a tenderfoot who comes along to rescue his kidnapped wife.
After the acting and the New Mexico scenery, the film’s greatest asset is its old West milieu. Cowboys & Aliens shines when it focuses on the sights and sounds of its dilapidated never-was mining town and its varied and variously costumed cast of characters.
*Those are killed who you expect to be killed, those are rescued who you expect to be rescued, and events otherwise generally unfold as expected. The reveal of one character’s true identity might have been a surprise if the ads hadn’t given it away.
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The 2008 Western Appaloosa stars Ed Harris and Viggo Mortenson as lawmen-for-hire in 1880s New Mexico.