Cowboys & Aliens,
directed by Jon Favreau
(DreamWorks/Universal, 2011)

It was a fairly straightforward Western movie.

Until, very suddenly, it wasn't.

Cowboys & Aliens deserves a look on the strength of its cast alone. Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, either enough to carry a blockbuster film on his own, come together here to lock horns in a classic Western battle of wills over cattle and gold -- until the aliens blow up half the town of Absolution, abduct half its residents and leave these two craggy stars to join forces and win the day.

Jake Lonergan (Craig) is an unsmiling drifter without a memory, but with killer instincts and an odd piece of steampunk jewelry on his wrist. Woodrow Dolarhyde (Ford) is a curmudgeonly cowman with an unruly son and a grudge, and he has the force of law on his side -- or, if he treads a little on the raggedy side of the law, the law isn't about to stand in his way.

Then there's the girl, Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde), who is feistier than a young lady should be and seems to know more than she's telling about the aliens who are besetting the town. She leads a strong supporting cast, which includes Sam Rockwell as the sadsack barman Doc, Keith Carradine as the well-meaning Sheriff John Taggart, Clancy Brown as the gun-toting preacher Meachum, Paul Dano as the rowdy punk Percy Dolarhyde and Adam Beach as the earnest cowhand Nat Colorado.

Craig and Ford, both alpha-male actors who dominate any screen they're on, share the space here with uneasy grace. Sparks fly because they're not meant to get along and they're never supposed to like each other, but alien invasions make for strange bedfellows. Ford in particular wears his anger well; he shines when a few unexpected cracks appear in his gruff facade.

Oh, and there are aliens, too. They're of the vile, oozy and disgusting sort, with a gruesome pair of subdermal hands that are immensely gross and offputting. These ETs are violent and icky and so growly and feral I'm not sure I can accept them as the makers and pilots of a starship, but it doesn't matter so much how they got to the Old West; what matters is they're there, and they're not making friends.

I'm not familiar with the source material, which like so many movies today is a comic book, so I can't say whether or not the comic-book fans will be pleased. I enjoyed it for what it was, an entertaining mashup of Western and science-fiction tropes that gave Harrison Ford another cool role to play. My wife liked it because Daniel Craig had his shirt off. Man, I hate Daniel Craig.

review by
Tom Knapp

20 August 2011

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