Cowboys and Aliens is a big mess, sure, but I don’t know what everybody’s screaming about, it’s still better than most of the other maggoty offal they’ve been serving at the multiplex all year long. Apparently critics exhausted themselves praising Captain American—that rancid stew of Nazi-busting WWII cliches warmed over and served up to us for the zillionth retching time!—and now they’re cranky and ready to pan the hell out of something.
If you’re going to enjoy Cowboys and Aliens at all, of course, you have to be in the mood for a Western, even one scrambled together with sci-fi ingredients like we prefer nowadays. If you don’t want to see horses galloping past mesas, and men frowning over glasses of whiskey in dusty saloons, and gunfights and cactus and all that, skip the whole thing.
Personally, I like Westerns. I was prepared to focus on the horses and whiskey and gunfights and let the rest of it drift. Which was the right strategy, because there are some painfully stupid things in Cowboys and Aliens. The whole rattling machinery of the plot, bolted together by an assembly line of screenwriters who lifted the idea from a graphic novel, has to be cranked up by director Jon Favreau and his crew, and they don’t exactly do a smooth, sleek job of it.
Though it seems like it ought to be simple enough. It’s all about getting warring Western factions to unite and fight the aliens. So we have to get the mean cattle baron (Harrison Ford) to work with the mysterious no-name gunslinger (Daniel Craig) and the beleaguered town sheriff (Keith Carradine) and the nervous saloon-keeper (Sam Rockwell) and the wry preacher (Clancy Brown) and the weird babe in the prairie dress and six-guns (Olivia Wilde)—wait, what the hell is she dressed up as, anyway? And where’d she get her teeth bleached in 1875 Arizona?
But our motley little posse still needs more help, because it’s tough to return fire against those alien ray-guns shooting from the sky. So the plot machinery clanks along some more: can the town posse join forces with the outlaw desperado band, and the local Indian tribe, and the sheepherders, and the Shriners, and the PTA?
Finally they get all that sorted out, so they can have the big battle. The aliens are big slimy reptilian-amphibious creatures, as usual, and very dedicated to probing humanity. They must be destroyed! Whose Manifest Destiny is this, anyway?
Speaking of things that must be destroyed, Olivia Wilde is turning into a real problem. On TV in House she wasn’t bad, but so far in movies she’s a disaster. I realize she’s around for her looks, so it’s ironic that in Cowboys and Aliens she doesn’t look all that good anywhere. She gums up every scene she’s in by standing there blank-eyed and staring, edging into scenes like a young woman with mental problems who happened to visit the Cowboys and Aliens set one day wearing a strange Western-themed outfit and kept sidling into camera range. Then she stands there, forehead bulging, pale eyes goggling, tweezed eyebrows arching. Periodically Daniel Craig asks her why she keeps bothering him.
On the other hand, she provides a few solid laughs here and there—her nude scene is a riot.
Olivia Wilde’s zonked dim-bulb performance stands out even more next to assorted pros who apparently decided to act the hell out of this space-Western. Daniel Craig commits to his part like it’s the last one he’s ever going to get. From the moment his character wakes up in the desert with an oozing stomach-wound and a metallic bracelet as a memento of his abduction by aliens, Craig seems prepared to clench his teeth and haul the whole crazy plot-load over the finish line by himself if he has to, through sheer force of acting-will.
He’s got excellent help from skull-faced Walter Coggins (Justified), who brings his usual demented energy to the part of the outlaw gang member who keeps telling Craig’s character, in confusing bursts of homoerotic toadying, “You was alwuz mah favorite!”
Sam Rockwell does his best Rockwellian twitching as the saloonkeeper who has to learn to shoot in order to assert his lost manhood. Paul Dano slimes along as hard as he can as the loathsome wastrel son of the mean cattle baron, and Adam Beach exudes mournful dignity as the m.c.b.’s adopted Indian son who’s a thousand times better than the blood-son but never gets any credit cuz he’s an Injun. And as the m.c.b. himself, Harrison Ford, he—well, jeez, was he always such a hambone? Ford seems to be going bigger with his signature effects than I ever remember, making his dourness more cutely codgery and his softening-up twinkle more wry. Ham-on-wry, even.
But Ford rides a horse well, and that’s important. He and Craig are visible on horseback for long enough (before their stuntmen take over) to demonstrate that they can both ride beautifully. And handle guns, and wear big hats, and stride around manfully in boots. If they learned to do all that through some director-ordered, two-week horseback-riding/gun-slinging/hat-wearing/boot-walking course, it’s still pretty impressive.
Craig has gotten so good at the physical business of acting that all those early comparisons to Steve McQueen are sounding less crazy. McQueen was also a fine athlete and a scene-stealer who knew how to use concentrated stillness, lithe movement, and unexpectedly graceful small gestures to wipe other actors off the screen. (Hilarious bit in a TV bio of McQueen showing how he stole scenes in Magnificent Seven from Yul Brynner, who fumed but was powerless to stop looking like a stiff next to McQueen’s deft, distracting hatbrim-touches and weight-shifts and gun-adjustments.)
So if you’re looking for an erotic object at the movies—and who isn’t?—Daniel Craig is going to make you very, very happy. Presuming you like guys. If you prefer women, you’re stuck with Olivia Wilde. Film, like life, isn’t fair.
Other gorgeous animals in the film include a nice shepherd-mix dog, and a whole chorus-line of stunning horses.
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