Tuesday, August 2, 2011

"Cowboys & Aliens" wastes fun mash-up premise

Cowboys & Aliens (2011)
118 min., rated PG-13. 
Grade: C

Melding two disparate genres is always a gutsy movesometimes it works, sometimes it does notbut there's always effort for trying. Directed by Jon Favreau ("Iron Man") and credited to six screenwriters on a script inspired by Scott Michael Rosenberg's graphic novel, "Cowboys & Aliens" had a pitch destined to be a lot of genre-bending fun. UFOs in the Old West, what? When a movie has a gaggle of writers credited to its screenplay, not to mention fifteen producers (Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard included), you would expect all that creative imput to balance out onto the screen. It's also fun to think what would've been made of Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) and James Bond (Daniel Craig) sharing the same frame. Unfortunately, all that potential is wasted. "Cowboys & Aliens" only gets the first half of the equation right, making this stolid mash-up of "how the West was won" and "take me to your leader" kind of an uninspired drag. 

Craig plays a taciturn outlaw named Jake Lonergan, who wakes up in the Arizona desert circa 1875 but can't remember who he is, or how he wound up there with a metal bracelet strapped to his wrist. A 007 gadget that Q cooked up or part of Iron Man's metal suit? Neither actually. But like most Jason Bourne amnesiacs, he sure knows how to draw, shoot, and throw hard punches. Once he sets foot into the small Wild West town of Absolution, Jake stands up to Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano), the jackassy son of town-running cattleman Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). Cat-eyed stranger Ella (Olivia Wilde) seeks Jake out and senses an otherworldly connection with him, but how? Then out of nowhere, lights loom in the nighttime sky and the spacecrafts start lassoing people right up off the ground. From there, Jake, Dolarhyde, Ella, and other stock western types go searching for "the taken" and to defeat the space demons. And yes, the cowboys do eventually merge with the Apache Indians. 

Director Favreau takes a serious, languid approach, despite the occasional goofy one-liner, that the film does get off to a strong start in Western mode. Matthew Libatique's strikingly dusty cinematography is not far removed from Roger Deakins' lensing in "True Grit" and everything else, and Harry Gregson-Williams' evocative score combines the themes of both genres better than the film itself. Once the latter half of the title roll into town, the momentum picks up and the first close encounter with an alien in a capsized boat for shelter raises the stakes. Then after a half hour's time of promise, a key character's death and rescurrection grinds the pacing so much that you can feel the life and excitement draining from it, like air leaking from a helium balloon. Without giving anything away, the character is merely a plot device for exposition and not a very good one in explaining the aliens' insidious capturing and holding of humans. Speaking of the aliens . . . every western/sci-fi picture is only as strong as its villain, but these guys aren't particularly impressive. Except for the gooey, creepy deformed hands that emerge from their chests, the aliens look like a CG hybrid of calimari, "the" Alien, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. 

As "Cowboys & Aliens" ambles along, it becomes a less thrilling chase picture with a lot of dimly lit action. And the final rescue scenes of the taken loved ones reuniting with the would-be cowboys lack any dramatic weight, so what's the point? Otherwise, Craig is great here, adding to the steel-blue-eyed, two-fisted strong and silent type that he's created in the James Bond reboots with a dose of Indy. Ford, the former Indy, is in crabass form again, but his Dolarhyde isn't very well-defined on the page and the dialogue given to him falls surprisingly flat. As for Wilde, she has gorgeous coyote eyes, but there's nothing else to her portrayal of Ella. Sam Rockwell, Clancy Brown, and Keith Carradine serve their time well as Absolution's saloon owner, preacher doctor, and sheriff. Also, Walton Goggins as a rotten-toothed member of Jake's former gang is always a live-wire to have around. 

The execution of "Cowboys & Aliens" merits less fun and wonder to its name that one dreams what Favreau and only one screenwriter could've done with the concept rather than half a dozen. Just see J.J. Abrams' "Super 8" again; it's the best entertainment of the summer and a better genre mash-up next to the disappointing "Cowboys & Aliens." 

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