The biggest hurdle the new Universal/DreamWorks film “Cowboys & Aliens” has to overcome is its own name. It’s a nod to the old children’s game of Cowboys & Indians, a reference that may be too obscure for younger moviegoers. As the titles implies, the film plays with the genre conventions of both Westerns and sci-fi films, and in that ambition, director Jon Favreau and his team of writers, which includes “Star Trek” scribes Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci and “Lost” veteran Damon Lindelof, succeed in a fairly satisfying manner, but it leaves one wondering whether the summer movie-going audience will appreciate the effort.
The film could easily be filled with jokey one-liners and broad antics, but Favreau chose to take a different direction and treat each half of the titular equation seriously. The movie opens with a classic Western image: the open wilderness. We are soon introduced to Daniel Craig’s character, who illustrates his toughness, despite a having a gaping wound in his side, by defeating a band of highwaymen. Stumbling into a nearby town, the gunslinger has no idea where his injury came from, or much of anything outside of how to talk and shoot a gun. The town sheriff soon identifies the stranger as Jake Lonergan, a bandit wanted for a recent robbery. It turns out the richest man in town, Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) would also like a word with him.
The set-up is classic Western material: a lone man in the great emptiness of the frontier with a troubled past, the angry cattleman with a score to settle, even Paul Dano’s over-the-top appearance as Dolarhyde’s ne’er-do-well son Percy makes sense within the world the director constructs. The film could easily be about Lonergan and Dolarhyde’s conflict and how it shapes the soul of the town, but instead the film takes a turn that would be unexpected if not for the title. Aliens arrive and abduct several townsfolk, leaving the Colonel, Lonergan and several others to saddle up to take the fight back to the extraterrestrial bandits.
Along the way, Dolarhyde becomes a more rounded character. In another version of “Cowboys & Aliens,” he would never be more than his black hat/cattle baron exterior, but here we learn the reasons for both his general anger as well as his animosity toward Craig’s amnesiac gunslinger.
Since Harrison Ford is playing the part, it is virtually impossible to completely dislike Dolarhyde. In some ways, Ford recalls the unlikely casting of Henry Fonda in “Once Upon a Time in the West,” in which Fonda plays utterly against his typical good-guy type, his character beyond redemption. In “Cowboys,” Ford’s character is never too far from finding the light and the actor’s mere presence telegraphs his arc. Still, Ford is pretty good at playing angry old cusses and clearly relishes his role..
Having to hold his own against Ford’s screen presence, Craig does an admirable job as a gunslinger with few words, but plenty of firepower. While the bulk of his story revolves around recovering his memories, his interactions with Ford are a welcome source of humor. The two never trade funny lines, instead offering each other looks that deliver more satisfying laughs than any campy punch line. There isn’t much to say about Lonergan as a character. He spends the entire movie as a bullet, constantly in motion without much reflection. In many ways, he’s cast perfectly in the mold of the tough men of Hollywood’s Old West who kept their emotions close to the vest and always chose blunt action over talking.
Other than Dolarhyde, most of the characters are on the thin side. Clancy Brown and Sam Rockwell bring a welcome sense of fun, but their characters are as generic as the name of Rockwell’s character “Doc.” Both actors bring a lot of themselves to the parts, becoming more satisfying presences than the writing alone would suggest. This holds true for Adam Beech’s turn as an orphaned Apache and Walton Goggins’ small role.
The biggest problem “Cowboys & Aliens” faces is its devotion to the formal concerns of both genres. While film buffs will enjoy the way it tweaks conventions and mixes ideas, everyday moviegoers may not find those elements as engaging. Also, in becoming dedicated to the Western setting, Favreau keeps the action fairly muted. Personally, the smaller scale is a welcome change of pace, but it means the set-pieces are oddly slow and lacking the sort of pizzazz summer film fans expect from their popcorn movies.
The result of the genre mash-up is a solid movie with a refreshing setting that harkens back to summers of old, when the landscapes were real, the aliens mysterious, and saving one corner of the frontier was as important as and more interesting than giant CGI robots battling for the fate of the planet.
“Cowboys & Aliens” opens Friday, July 29