Cowboys & Aliens
A rollicking Western for a 21st century crowd
“Cowboys & Aliens’’ - it sounds like a game you’d play in a 21st century backyard. That title, the presence of Harrison Ford, and the Steven Spielberg imprimatur (he’s on board as executive producer) promise blockbuster Americana with a sprinkling of extraterrestrials, a cinematic summer picnic suitable for the whole family.
Trust me: Leave the littlest guys at home because “E.T.’’ this ain’t. As directed by Jon Favreau (“Iron Man’’), “Cowboys & Aliens’’ is a hell-for-leather action film with a healthy serving of scares. It really is “Aliens’’ on the open plains, “Independence Day’’ for the nation’s centennial, and what the movie lacks in originality and stick-to-your-ribs Western authenticity, it makes up for in pell-mell multiplex entertainment.
And in Daniel Craig, the movie has what feels awfully like the second coming of Steve McQueen. Maybe it’s the laser blue eyes under the broad forehead, or the laconic refusal to speak except when absolutely necessary, but Craig has a presence here that feels downright mythic. He plays a badman named Jake Lonergan who wakes up at the start of the movie with an odd stomach wound, a strange metal manacle on his wrist, and no memory of who he is.
Whoever he is, he’s deadly. Wandering into the nearest town, Jake is immediately pulled into the power struggle between stoic Sheriff Taggart (Keith Carradine) and the local cattle baron, Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). The sheriff has thrown the colonel’s no-account son (Paul Dano) into the pokey, and daddy aims to break him out.
Wait, what? Ford’s playing the villain? For a while, yes, and the chance to be as mean as he wants to be energizes the star, whose storied crankiness finally finds a home. It’s a character part, and you can sense Ford’s relief at letting another man shoulder the load. Consciously or not, there’s a generational passing of the baton just under this movie’s surface, and it helps immensely that Craig’s up to the task.
Still, “Cowboys & Aliens’’ is looking like a fairly uninspired remake of the 1959 John Wayne classic “Rio Bravo’’ when, quite suddenly, the spaceship hits the fan. A nighttime showdown on Main Street is interrupted by a distant line of lights on the horizon - an unsettling moment of “Close Encounters’’ dread in a preelectric society. Then the aliens show their hand. They’re not the friendly type.
One of the pleasures of a pop culture mash-up like this is finding out where the rules of each genre bend, break, and fuse into new rules. The aliens are big, nasty hopfrogs well within the slimy expectations of modern moviegoers, but to the cowboys, they’re demons, possibly from Satan himself. They zip about lassoing humans as if they were runaway cows; late in the film, there’s a hair-raising scene where Craig has to jump not onto a speeding train but a runaway spacecraft.
It’s also fun to watch all the Western types who’d normally be at one another’s throats gradually pulling together to face the common threat. The film’s last half-hour is a pitched battle between Us and Them, with Us including everyone from placid townfolk to rotten-toothed outlaws to stone-faced Chiricahua fighters. This, says “Cowboys & Aliens,’’ is how you build community in the Old West. It takes a village to fight the squids.
The movie has been imaginatively cast, with Sam Rockwell as a milquetoast saloon owner, Clancy Brown as a tough town preacher, Raoul Trujillo as the warrior chief who bonds with Ford’s grumpy old soldier. And since this is a Hollywood Western, there’s an absurdly beautiful mystery woman played by the film industry’s babe du jour Olivia Wilde, but for once there’s a reason the character looks like she just emerged from a Malibu spa.
The elements are all there, and you come out feeling you got your money’s worth - yet “Cowboys & Aliens’’ never goes over the top into full-blown popcorn greatness. Familiar ingredients stirred together still taste familiar, and, worse, Favreau doesn’t have a genuine feel for the genre. The sets and costumes and props all look right, but none of it seems lived-in - not the way you sense a real, unforgiving frontier hardness in Craig’s face. Is it possible that they don’t know how to make Westerns in Hollywood anymore? Are the aliens on the prairie us?