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A man with no name rides into a dustbowl of a western town. No, he’s not Clint Eastwood, but it’s a reasonable facsimile.
The man is Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig: Defiance), a former bank robber who lost his memory around the same time he got a mysterious metal cuff on his wrist. When Lonergan is caught in town, local cattle baron Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford: Morning Glory) demands the right to hang the robber.
This classic Western standoff is interrupted when alien spacecrafts start abducting townsfolk. Fortunately, Jake’s nifty metal cuff turns into a weapon capable of felling UFOs with a single laser-like blast. Now the gunman and the cowman must be friends, as Jake and Dolarhyde form a posse to track down those pesky aliens and get their people back.
Think of it as High Plains Drifter meets Independence Day.
The problem with combining Sci-Fi and Western genres is that once you see cowboys firing six shooters at laser armed space creatures, you realize just how unfair the fight is. Clearly it’s a better idea on paper than on celluloid. These aliens have conquered the science of space travel; how hard can it be for them to out-gun men who don’t even practice proper hygiene?
Director John Favreau (Iron Man 2) doesn’t bother to answer this question; he’s too busy with effects and action to worry about character or plot. But Favreau has proven himself a competent director, meaning that even without much of a story, the action distracts from some of the more obvious pitfalls.
Still, even the characters don’t seem to know what they’re doing half the time. Olivia Wilde’s character, a woman of mystery in this western hamlet, isn’t so much a person as a pinup. You know she’s a love interest for the Craig character not because of their chemistry but because she’s the only available woman in the film. Her entire purpose in the movie is to stare wide-eyed at Craig and look like Olivia Wilde.
Favreau’s most egregious error is his underuse of a stellar supporting cast. Clancy Brown, Keith Carradine, Sam Rockwell and Adam Beach each get a moment to shine before being relegated to glorified extras when the aliens come. Rockwell especially is a missed opportunity, as he plays a doctor turned bartender desperate for respect, a character far more interesting and relatable than our gruff heroes.
In spite of the obvious flaws, Cowboys & Aliens is a fun, superfluous film. Craig squints and frowns in his best Eastwood impression, glaring down aliens and ornery hombres alike. Ford’s usual gruff and grumbling performance is perfect for the role of a bully cattle baron. Of course, half the amusement of the pairing comes from their previous film roles. It’s a kick to watch James Bond and Indiana Jones square off against ET, even if the story doesn’t make much sense.
On the other hand, if you insist on thinking while you watch a movie, you might want to skip this space-and-spurs flick.