First and foremost, “Cowboys & Aliens” is a Western. It features cowboys, gunslingers and, of course, a woman at the center of the storm. These distinct characters and the beginning of the story set up the movie like a normal Western until a few alien invaders get in the way. That is when “Cowboys” combines two film genres and becomes a story about a typical group of cowboys who must defend the Earth from a group of extraterrestrial visitors.
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"Cowboys" begins with a befuddled outlaw named Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) waking up in the middle of the desert with a strange mechanical bracelet attached to his arm. Lonergan doesn’t remember who he is or where the bracelet came from but he does remember how to defend himself, which he does when a group of cowboys surrounds him. Eventually, he heads into a local town where some of the townspeople remember Lonergan and his criminal past. Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), whose gold was stolen by Lonergan, arrives in town shortly after Lonergan is arrested. While Lonergan and Dolarhyde'’s rebellious son Percy (Paul Dano) are preparing to be transferred to another prison, aliens attack the town and kidnap some of its people. The story then revolves around the cowboys and their efforts to fight against the extraterrestrials.
Jon Favreau, who previously directed the first two “Iron Man” films, is smart enough to focus this film solidly in one genre before switching gears. Before the aliens attack, “Cowboys” works as a typical Western and could have succeeded as one. The characters are well-drawn and both Ford, whose gruffness reminded me of his work in last year’s “Morning Glory,” and tough-guy Craig were well-chosen leads. The strong supporting cast includes Sam Rockwell, as a man whose wife is abducted, and the underused Dano, who was so memorable in 2007's "There Will Be Blood."
“Cowboys” doesn’t live up to “Iron Man,” but it's a fun summer movie nonetheless. Favreau's enjoyment of the concept becomes clear through some of the distinct visuals that make this adventure stand out. It isn’t every day that viewers can watch a group of cowboys climb onto an alien spacecraft in the middle of the desert or shoot at spaceships with old-fashioned weapons.
The plot, concerning the cowboys forming alliances with other locals and preparing for a big showdown with the aliens leaves a little something to be desired. With such an exciting concept behind the film, a stronger story could have propelled this film from being a solid film into something better but “Cowboys & Aliens” settles for what it is.
Oftentimes, "Cowboys" feels more driven by the concept behind it than by its own plot but the concept is strong enough to make it worth seeing. Favreau blends the two genres well, creating a strong setting for a typical Western and then adding aliens into it. Like the concept, the action scenes work well but don't overwhelm the characters or the story. "Cowboys" may have some flaws but it's a fun summer movie nevertheless and is definitely worth seeing.