Even in a world where most movie heroes have to take on superpowers before they can fight properly and often find themselves toeing the PC line while saving the world, it’s good to know that some movie concepts are just good, clean, ridiculous fun. And riding onto the nation’s movie screens this weekend is a perfect example of just that kind of film: the new Western/sci-fi hybrid genre mash-up “Cowboys & Aliens.”
The “plot” couldn’t be more basic, yet it took nine people to assemble the script, which opens on tough-guy cowboy Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) waking up in the desert with a nasty gash in his belly and a mysterious iron bracelet on one arm.
[youtube oXHhnT1tHNM nolink]
As he struggles to remember what led to his desert awakening, Jake is confronted by three horsemen who threaten to turn him in for a bounty. He still can’t remember his name or where he came from, but he does know how to open a can of whupass on the interlopers and proceeds to kill them before riding into the nearest town wearing their clothes and riding their horses.
When he finds that the town is ruled by the terroristic clan of corrupt cattle rancher Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), he proceeds to stir things up by humorously beating Woodrow’s son and henchmen. Just as he’s about to have to run for his life or fight to the death with Woodrow, however, a fleet of alien spaceships comes swooping in out of nowhere to blow a bunch of stuff up for no immediately apparent reason – and Jake and Woodrow have to team up and bring their respective posses together to fight back against the aliens with one cohesive force.
Before you wonder if the idea of combining the gangs to stop an outside force is an exercise in kumbaya multiculturalism, let me assure you that this is a rare case where Hollywood just lets a film play by its own rules, with no agenda to be found anywhere. The two posses are made up of middle-aged white men just because that was the norm back in the days of the segregated Old West, and at a few points there are even touching or haunting moments in which a character named Doc asks the town preacher about the meaning of his life and the suffering he has endured, as well as a touching turnaround in which the Doc makes sure the preacher is treated with respect and proper prayers when he dies.
And it’s also cool to see Craig find inventive ways to beat the crap out of people and shoot them from unexpected angles, enabling him to cut loose in a way his reserved James Bond character rarely can. Ford, meanwhile, pulls off his first fun non-Indiana Jones role since 1997’s “Air Force One,” and while it’s obvious that Craig and Ford are having a blast bad-mouthing and punching each other across some impressive Western vistas, this doesn’t quite add up to the jaw-droppingly entertaining genre mashup that it should be.
Instead, it seems to drag at times while director Jon Favreau (“Iron Man”) finds ways to shoehorn the under-developed yet frightening aliens (who bear way too much resemblance to the creatures in the “Alien” series, and are a bit too blatantly CGI amid the vibrantly real locations the cowboys ride through).
But the fact that I was able to maintain a goofy smile and chuckle throughout does count for something. It may not be a great Western like “Shane” nor a sci-fi classic on the level of the “Alien” series, but “Cowboys & Aliens” offers an amusing oasis for weary viewers to drink from amid a summer film schedule filled with parched ideas and countless sequels. If you can’t help grinning over the concept alone, you’ll probably enjoy it. And if you think it sounds stupid, this film definitely isn’t for you.