Rating: 3 stars out of 5
Coming off the success of the mega success that were the two Iron Man movies, Jon Favreau declined to return to the director's chair for the third one. Instead he chose to work on another comic book property, the quite literal Cowboys and Aliens about Jake Lonegan (Daniel Craig), a man who wakes up in the middle of a desert with no recollection of who he is and with a mysterious looking metal bracelet on his hand. Turns out he's a federal fugitive wanted for arson and murder amongst many things. Unfortunately, he also stole from Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), a wealthy cattleman who wants Jake handed over to presumably do nasty revenge-y things to. In between all this madness, Jake is also pestered by Ella (Olivia Wilde), a mysterious woman who seemingly knows much more about Jake than he does himself. All that changes when aliens attack the town, grabbing quite a number of the town's citizens along with them. Jake's bracelet turns out to be the only weapon capable of shooting the ships down. Together, this rag tag crew of folks are forced to put aside their differences and set off to get the townsmen back. Or in Jake's case, to find out what exactly has happened to him to put him in this amnesiac like state.
How does it fare? For one, the movie is a western through and through. Although the title has some obvious "B" movie potential like certain fare with literal titles such as Snakes on a Plane, it is anything but. The impeccable atmosphere and sets just scream western when combined with an old school musical score. The story angle of the group making its way around recruiting other people to eventually launch a siege on the aliens is reminiscent of classic westerns like The Magnificent Seven and a certain action scene that involves jumping from one moving object to another invokes Indiana Jones. Action scenes are big and massive on an epic scale... so, the western part is pretty well done.
On the other hand, the sci-fi is executed quite flimsily. The sudden attack lends a sense of danger to the aliens that never fully gets exploited. We never quite understand why the aliens are kidnapping humans or their motives behind landing on Earth. The aliens are quite alike to the classic ones from the iconic Aliens franchise, they move fast and all but with somewhat of an insect like influence. However these aliens aren't very scary at all.
Even worse, the film's problems are compounded with an inconsistent screenplay. It starts off with a bang and an air of mystery that keeps you hooked for the first third of the movie but wastes that momentum with a second act that moves too slowly. Jake's story is played back in a series of flashbacks which eventually makes sense but still leaves some questions unanswered at the end. It's also an amazingly slow method of exposition that confuses as much as it explains.
Thankfully, the strong ensemble cast with its two iconic male leads manage to keep the ship afloat. Daniel Craig lends himself well to the role of an outlaw who won't hesitate to put a bullet in someone but is yet humane at the same time. Harrison Ford plays one of his typical tough ass veteran roles that he is perfectly suited for, especially with his dry wit. A bunch of strong supporting performances from current it girl Olivia Wilde and Sam Rockwell round up the cast's contributions, holding up a screenplay that seems to be threading water furiously. Rockwell's Doc character in particular, has a nice little struggle that comes full circle at the end, and will give the audience a chuckle or two.
To sum it up, Cowboys & Aliensis a big affair, the kind of popcorn fare that most audiences will enjoy. It's got tremendous star power in 007 and Indiana Jones shooting aliens side by and side and most will flock to the theater just for them. But one can't help but feel it could have been so much more. Instead, the film's final product ends up as one of those “not good, not terrible either” kind of films that'll be forgotten in a few years time.