Boom boom bang bang
What to say about Jon Favreau's Cowboys and Aliens? Like Samuel Jackson's Snakes on a Plane (2006), what you read in title pretty much what you get: hard-riding Western folks battling fanged-and-clawed extraterrestrials. Like the movie or not, you can't accuse 'em of false advertising. Unfortunately.
Story begins with Jake (Daniel Craig) waking up in desert with big metal bracelet in one wrist and no memory. Arrives in small town, is accused of being an outlaw by townfolk, including rich cattleman named Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) who accuses Jake of robbing his gold. Matters reach state of tumultuous furor (well--bubbly fizz) when aliens arrive in what look like giant metal dragonflies, use hi-tech lassos to snatch people off the ground and carry them away. Plenty folk taken, including Dolarhyde's son Percy (Paul Dano); Jake and Dolarhyde ride out together to try bring 'em back.
Forgot to mention: Jake meets Mysterious Woman (but aren't they all?) named Ella (Olivia Wilde). Doesn't add much to party 'cept when she dies body is thrown into bonfire, resurrected, walks out of flames in her altogether. Wilde perfectly suited for last part, but that's about it far as entertainment value concerned--she can't even strike sparks off of flinty Craig, who has apparently decided to glower for rest of the picture (why, I don't know--artist's expression of aesthetic disapproval over putrid production, perhaps?).
Favreau's career a puzzler; after directing generic comedy fare (Elf (2003)) and special effects-heavy children's book adaptations (Zathura 2005), suddenly ups ante by coaxing Robert Downey Jr. into giving only recent Marvel movie performance with any sense of emotional texture (Iron Man (2008); Iron Man 2 (2010)); now Favreau seems to have dumbed self back down with blow-em-away, blow-em-up summer flick complete with Indiana Jones as grizzly curmudgeon and James Bond as cool-as-cucumber (if somewhat robotic) protagonist.
Granted both played by Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig, who are capable of good work, and Paul Dano who, in films like There Will Be Blood (2007), shown to be capable of more than good work--but what they doing in this piece of cow flop? Favreau set up expectations; proved that with good actor could come up with something watchable, if not enjoyable. Craig under Favreau seems to be phoning--no, telegraphing in (phones not invented yet). Plays cool cowboy same way he plays cool secret agent: stoic, not a little stolid. Ford warmer, perhaps livelier than in last few pictures: here plays what is ostensibly called 'bad' guy, or nasty customer not adverse to tying man between two horses. Meanness mainly show, of course (Dolarhyde cuts man loose from one horse); when this becomes clear movie collapses to ground with soft whispered 'pffft!'
Dano--as said terrific in There Will Be Blood--mostly wasted here. After playing dissipated youth in movie's first twenty minutes, is captured by aliens and kept in storage for most of picture.
Isn't as if Favreau were hotshot action filmmaker. Fight sequences in Iron Man movies never high points; high point was always Downey fooling around, trying to bring comic-book character to life (with Gwyneth Paltrow lending touch of rom-com frisson to proceedings). Given title like Cowboys and Aliens expect decent action sequences, but these look secondhand, as if borrowed from sources of not much higher quality (this year's incomprehensibly shot and edited Battle: Los Angeles; Neill Blomkamp's 2009 District 9; and--thank you much for reminding--Roland Emmerich's ridiculously overblown, just-as-if-not-more-so derivative Independence Day (1996)).
Keep thinking: Howard Hawks could've done this in his sleep. He master of western genre, knows how to shoot horses riding across Arizona landscape, knows how to stage gunfights, how to get maximum dramatic and comic mileage out of even halfway talented actors (and actresses). Hawks knows when odds are too one-sided how to even 'em up, in inventive and entertaining ways (thinking of literally explosive finale to Rio Bravo (1959)); even has experience in directing alien invasion pictures, albeit on small scale (The Thing From Another World (1951)). Hawks know how to apply special effects (as little as possible), how to stage, shoot and cut action sequences (cleanly and coherently), how to have woman address man (saucily as possible, to provoke not just man but all males in audience). High art or low entertainment, Hawks would produce something that grab attention, or at least be watchable. He at least make girl saucier, instead of hot human body hiding wet noodle alien brain with nada personality.
Not stupidity of basic concept I object to--as suggested, Hawks could have done this in deep sleep, wearing pajamas--but laziness of execution of final product. Back to home planet from whence originate!
First published in Businessworld, 8.11.11