Movie review in the Friday, July 29 Oregonian....
(Video taken from Jon Favreau's offbeat "Cowboys & Aliens" promotional interviews, in which Favreau flips Harrison Ford an amusing amount of crap.)
If "Cowboys & Aliens" is what it takes to get Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig to star in a Western these days, well, I guess that's fine.
The good news: The movie's plainly entertaining, with a terrific cast and a fast-moving story helping you overlook the dialogue's frequent failure to crackle. And, joke title aside, director Jon Favreau ("Iron Man") made a film that never stops looking and feeling like an old-school Western -- even when that Western ends up being about a group of outlaws, townsfolk, ranchers and Native Americans forced to band together to fight a pack of overgrown turtles from space. This is a straightforward, action-packed monster flick that happens to be set in the Old West, not some winking thing hiding behind a cheap plastic irony mask.
"Cowboys" is very loosely adapted from a Platinum Studios comic book, and starts with a nice slow pan across the desert, settling on Daniel Craig as a terse man who comes to in the middle of nowhere, lacking both his memory and his boots. Oh, and he has a big metal "Flash Gordon" bracelet on his arm. He causes some trouble, wanders into a failing mining town and causes some more trouble -- much of it heaped comically on the town bully, the drunken idiot son (Paul Dano) of a cruel rancher (Harrison Ford).
It threatens to get ugly. Alien flying machines show up and lasso away half the townsfolk. It gets uglier.
I'm a fan of Favreau's uncomplicated filmmaking style. He shoots his action straight and plain, keeps the CGI to a seeming minimum, and gives his cast plenty of room to breathe, finding character-driven humor where the writers maybe didn't. The biggest beef I had with the movie is that the dialogue and monster-movie/Western tropes are too generic to be deeply memorable. It's a testament to Favreau that this somehow isn't a dealbreaker.
Nearly every character in "Cowboys & Aliens" is more a classic oater archetype than a human being, really (and the aliens aren't much more than an angry, faceless horde), but Favreau keeps it interesting by assembling one of the deeper acting benches I've seen in a popcorn flick in a long while -- the supporting cast is packed with genre faves and solid utility players including Dano, Sam Rockwell, Clancy Brown, Keith Carradine, Walton Goggins, Adam Beach and David O'Hara.
Meanwhile, the stars play into the iconography by letting their looks and physicality do the heavy lifting. The rail-thin Craig is nearly monosyllabic as The Man (Briefly) With No Name. Olivia Wilde works a wide-eyed stare as the ethereal stranger following him around. And Ford actually seems to be enjoying himself as a nasty old bigot who softens up thanks to forced cooperation and bonding moments on the trail with a couple of surrogate sons (Beach, Noah Ringer). He's fully engaged, having enough fun here that I'm not surprised to hear he just signed up to play Wyatt Earp, albeit a late-career Earp hanging out in Hollywood. I hope this kicks off a late-career reinvention that finds Ford spending his remaining years playing cowboys sans aliens.
'Cowboys & Aliens' (Friday, July 29, 2011)