All violent on the Western front


Cowboys & Aliens

dir. Jon Favreau

Release Date: Jul 29, 11

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Cowboys & Aliens is a film that would’ve only worked with the utmost gravity; call it the anti-Transformers. Even one winking moment of “There sure are a bunch of aliens in this boomtown!” would’ve taken audiences right out of a film that, while sporting a pretty sizable pedigree, is inherently a little bit ridiculous. Luckily, there’s none of that. In fact, the first and biggest surprise regarding Cowboys may just be how brutal it is.

The film opens on a nameless man (get it? a Man With No Name) waking up in the middle of the wilderness, with a strange bracelet on his arm. Three thieves ride up and attempt to capture him, to which he responds by beating the living hell out of all of them in a matter of seconds. Soon, he finds his way into a small mining town, where he draws the ire of Percy (Paul Dano), the son of Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), a cattle tycoon singlehandedly keeping the town’s economy afloat. Because this is a Western, the locals don’t take kindly to this stranger, especially when one night the town is sieged by spaceships. Loved ones start getting roped and abducted, and even more questions emerge when No Name takes down one of the ships with his bracelet, which turns into a gun when aliens are nearby.

The beauty of Jon Favreau’s film is that he understands that the conventional Western still has merit, and no matter what kind of space-age violence he tosses into the fold, the film must stay rooted in the convention of the drifter gaining the trust of the locals as they chase down an evil group that’s laid claim to their property. Without giving too much away, there’s a neat twist concerning the aliens’ power source that puts the film even closer to the traditional Western.

The uniformly excellent cast is the film’s biggest ace, though. Craig is a full-on badass, bringing an even purer balance of toughness and charisma here than he did in his two excellent Bond performances. Ford, for the first time in years, looks like he’s actually trying, and Olivia Wilde is solid as usual as the film’s token moll with a secret past. The supporting turns hold up as well, with the perennially underrated Sam Rockwell playing the film’s quiet man, and Noah Ringer doing a far better job as a young boy in the middle of chaos than he did in The Last Airbender.

The action sequences have a certain infallible logic to them that allows them to move beyond the audacity of their high concept. This is where Cowboys shines the most, because where the human element deals mostly in archetypes (albeit well-done archetypes), the action is a bizarre-yet-effective hybrid of open-field shootouts and Independence Day. Favreau’s masterstroke is treating these three or four major setpieces with a bone-crunching grit, serving notice that this is no laughing matter. And, despite its ridiculous title, neither is Cowboys & Aliens.