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Cowboys & Aliens / ** (PG-13)

Posted Tuesday, August 2, 2011, at 8:36 PM

(Photo)
Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig are declaring war on aliens in the old west in "Cowboys & Aliens".
Universal Pictures, DreamWorks Pictures and Reliance Entertainment present a film directed by Jon Favreau. Written by Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman & Damon Lindelof and Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby and Steve Oedekirk. Based on the Platinum Studios comic book by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg. Running time: 118 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of western and sci-fi action and violence, some partial nudity, and a brief crude reference).

Now, when you put Indiana Jones and James Bond in a movie together you expect it to be both thrilling and funny, do you not? The new movie "Cowboys & Aliens", starring Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, has a lot of legacy to live up to. On top of the Indy and Bond connections it's also a western and an alien invasion movie. Well, it tries to be a whole lot of western and it settles on being a below average alien invasion movie, and it under utilizes the power and charm of its stars.

Based on a comic book from a publisher I've never heard of, "Cowboys & Aliens" aims high. It throws the audience into a western where Jake Lonergan (Craig) wakes up in the desert with some strange device on his hand. He doesn't know what happened to him. He doesn't know who he is. It appears other people do, however. The sheriff (Keith Carradine, "Dexter") wants to hand him over to the federal marshal for bank robbery and murder, among other things. A cattle rancher and Civil War hero named Dolarhyde (Ford) wants him to pay for humiliating his son and stealing his gold. And, a mysterious woman named Ella (Olivia Wilde, "Tron: Legacy") wants to know what he doesn't know he knows.

For a while it seems as if "Cowboys & Aliens" could make an interesting straight western. Ford and Craig look like they're in typical good form. Craig suavely plays the hero, trying to figure out what everyone else seems to know about him. Ford comes off as a bit of a tyrant, but still delivers a good double take. Then the aliens show up and things start to go south.

Now, I am not above a whacky premise like imagining a western where aliens invade and all your typical western archetypes have to figure out how to save the world, but such a concept really can't be approached in the same way as a more common plot. This premise is clearly dealing in absurdity, and while it's important for the players to approach the material with utter sincerity, the creators behind the camera need to firmly define what they're dealing with. Is this going to be something we're supposed to take seriously? Is it going for homage? Are we going to try and place this inside some sort of genre reality and explain how these events could've happened without changing what we already know about history?

For the most part, it seems the filmmakers never asked these questions or chose not to answer them. With seven writers contributing to the process, it's not surprising that some decisions might never have been made. Jon Favreau ("Iron Man") directs the movie straightforwardly, as if this is his homage to the classic western. Did anyone tell him the classic westerns don't have aliens? He doesn't try to suggest that he's aware of this fact. I'm sure he is, so he might've indicated something awry in the film's style, or thrown a few other quirks in here and there to try and fit the two genres together, somehow.

Once the aliens start taking towns people, the alien invasion side of the film declares itself quite serious and any hope that the incredible cast assembled here has of saving the material is lost. The remaining cast forms a posse to track down the aliens and save their captured loved ones. These western settlers take everything with an amazing amount of acceptance. There is no sense of shock and awe at the events unfolding in front of them. It might as well be Arnold Schwarzenegger leading the posse. At least his accent would provide some quirk to suggest that this otherworldly activity wouldn't blow his mind.

Mixing another genre with the western is a risky endeavor that has paid off on a few occasions, but more often results in such failures as "Wild Wild West" and "Jonah Hex". "Cowboys & Aliens" is not a failure to the same degree as those movies. It has both the western and sci-fi genre details correct. The alien designs could work in any straightforward alien flick. The atmosphere is dusty and gritty. But, the film lacks a certain special element to capitalize on the clashing of two very different genres. It lacks uniqueness in both its western and sci-fi elements and never gives us a reason to desire these two flavors to be mixed.

"Cowboys & Aliens" is currently playing at Marshall Cinema in Marshall and Galaxy Cinema in Sedalia.

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ANDREW D. WELLS
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Andrew is a professionally trained actor and stage director. He was a reporter for the daily newspaper The Marshall Democrat News. He has been critiquing film since Mr. Lucas released the first of his "Star Wars" prequels in 1999. His reviews can also be seen at his blog site.
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