Regular readers of my Daily Call Sheet know that one of this summer’s tentpoles I was most excited to see was “Cowboys and Aliens.” The concept, trailer, and director (Jon Favreau) really sold me, and who doesn’t love them some cowboys and aliens? Much to my surprise, though, the $165 million sci-fi epic opened and flopped… hard, once again confirming my long-standing rule never to embarrass myself with public box office predictions. After the fact, the failure was attributed to a film that just wasn’t very good, but that doesn’t explain why what looked like a no-brainer would open to a paltry $36 million weekend. Now that I’ve actually seen the Blu-ray (which hits stores today), it’s all starting to make sense.
What audiences sensed, I think, is exactly what’s wrong with the movie itself and that’s the casting. While Daniel Craig impressed us in “Casino Royale” and especially “Layer Cake,” he just doesn’t register as the mysteriously dangerous stranger who shows up in a corrupt Western town. This isn’t necessarily a criticism of Craig. Bogart’s a legend, but not every legend looks comfortable wearing a cowboy hat. Craig does look the part, but what he is missing requires some explanation.
As The Man With No Name, Craig fails to register. The story really does rest on his ridiculously toned shoulders, and this is where things falter most and also where I’m about to get a little unfair. As much as I would like to, it’s impossible for me to separate my love and knowledge of film from what Hollywood’s producing today, and when it comes to this kind of “town” Western and this kind of character, Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone’s “Fistful of Dollars” (1964) is the standard. As is Eastwood in his own masterpiece “High Plains Drifter” (1973), and I would even include Bruce Willis in “Last Man Standing” (1996), Walter Hill’s imperfect but still memorable updated remake of “Dollars.”
The stranger has to carry a sense of mystery about him that’s both unspoken and intriguing. Without a word of exposition, we have to want to know who this guy is and what makes him tick. Is he the good guy? Is he the bad guy? Moreover, there has to be a sense of unpredictable danger — the sense that this man is capable of anything. Lastly, a wicked sense of humor doesn’t hurt.
Blame it on the script, director, or genre, but Craig’s lacking here. While the actor might look the part, he “felt” out of place (not in the right way) and the sense that he might be explosively dangerous never generated a tense anticipation… probably because the question is answered too soon in a contrived barroom brawl. In a better film, by the time Craig’s stranger finally shows us how capable he is, we should be on the edge of our seats dying for that moment to arrive. Instead, due to [insert action scene here], “Cowboys and Aliens” denies us that pleasure.
Another problem is Harrison Ford, who’s never successful when he’s not playing Harrison Ford. As the brutal patriarch who “runs the town,” Ford is obviously channeling “The Big Country”‘s (1958) Charles Bickford, but it’s all very surface. Nothing about the Ford character’s ultimate “arc” surprised in the least.
The problems with Craig and Ford are what I think audiences intuitively understood, even if I didn’t. One of the key components of marketing a film is to put an actor the public likes in a situation they are dying to see him or her in (Willis vs. terrorists, Sandler vs. snobs), and moviegoers just weren’t excited by the idea of seeing those two in that setting — and, as it turns out, for good reason.
The aliens, however, are even worse. As the story’s antagonist, their motivation feels contrived, and the effect their presence might have in that time and place is never really explored. Moreover, they never feel like much of a threat. There’s hardly any tension when they’re on-screen, much less off. There’s so much promise wasted in this area, I wouldn’t know where to begin.
Another problem is the script, which, as I said above, lacks tension but is also structured poorly. Flashbacks explaining Craig’s backstory never fail to kill what little momentum is building, mainly because we don’t care about the Craig character’s backstory.
As expected, Favreau directs the action well, and the special effects, especially in the early scenes, are top-notch. The climax, however, is the biggest letdown. If anything’s lacking from “Cowboys and Aliens,” it’s fun.
On home video, this mash-up of genres should play better than it did with the expectations that come with the theatrical experience, especially one that’s a summer tentpole. But this is what you call a one-off — something you probably won’t be interested in seeing again. If Hollywood wants to know why DVD sales have collapsed, “Cowboys and Aliens” is Exhibit #12,127.