A spaceship arrives in 19th century Arizona, abducting civilians. The locals, led by mysterious outlaw Jake Lonergan, decide to fight back.
With its straight-to-the-point title, comic book director du jour and the on screen pairing of James Bond and Han Solo, Jon Favreau’s Cowboys & Aliens promises so much. It’s unfortunate then that the movie ends up less than the sum of its parts, ending up more a forgettable genre mash up than an instant cult classic.
The early set up is solid, opening with Daniel Craig’s Jake Lonergan awakening in the desert, injured, with a bad case of amnesia and a curious bracelet locked to his wrist. After wandering into the nearest town, Jake soon ends up in an altercation with the spoiled son of local cattleman Col. Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), bringing him to the attention of the Sheriff (Keith Carradine) who quickly recognises Jake as a wanted outlaw. It isn’t long before the aliens join the cowboys, attacking the town and abducting various members of the supporting cast. This leads, of course, to a convoluted quest involving Apaches, humming birds, peyote and outlaws on route to an inevitable battle between the titular cowboys and aliens.
All of this sounds like great fun on paper but the reality is the film is all concept and no content, resulting in an uneven mix of dreary Western and bland sci-fi actioner. That’s not to say Cowboys & Aliens is without positives. Favreau has shown in recent years with the Iron Man franchise that he can handle big, explosive action and there’s no faulting his technique here, nor that of cinematographer Matthew Libatique who ensures that the film looks fantastic throughout. Daniel Craig, a million miles from Bond, gives a good turn as an Eastwood-style drifter, the kind of turn that makes you yearn to see him in a top notch Western rather than a pulpy shoot ’em up. Harrison Ford seems to have developed a bizarre, growling style of overacting in recent years that often grates here but all is forgiven with a flash of that Han Solo smirk and some strong, if clichéd, later scenes of sickly sweet sentimentality. It’s hard to criticise as it is at least a departure from the familiar formula Ford has been strictly adhering to since the 90’s.
The supporting cast also deliver, with Paul Dano and Sam Rockwell on hand to provide able support as Dolarhyde’s slimy son and saloon-keeper Doc respectively. Olivia Wilde’s role, despite her hidden agenda and importance to the plot, still feels like nothing more than that of a generic love interest.
Despite the technical skill on display there’s still just an overwhelming feeling of emptiness as the film moves from an intriguing opening act to a middle third far too dull for any big budget summer movie and finally onto an entirely underwhelming climax. The premise promises pulpy fun with massive action set pieces underpinned by sly humour but, surprisingly for a Favreau flick, the fun and humour is tragically lacking. What should’ve been a crazy blend of two beloved genres ends up a slick yet hollow Hollywood actioner, weighed down by an overly complex plot, slow pacing and a bloated run time.