Film review: Cowboys and AliensBy Kim Francis
August 17, 2011
Twists on the traditional Western rarely do well, particularly when a director tampers with the genre itself – something that’s precisely defined by its imagery and themes.
When genre-melding steampunk flick Wild Wild West came out 12 years ago, mixing the Western with sci fi-fantasy, it flopped critically and commercially, as did the similarly difficult to categorise Jonah Hex.
Now, it could just be that both of these films were rubbish – or perhaps both were ahead of their time. Whatever, the clamour around Cowboys and Aliens suggests that this time around cinemagoers seem to be prepared for and excited about this latest genre mash-up.
Why? Well, first, there’s the casting. Cowboys and Aliens unites James Bond (aka Daniel Craig) and Indiana Jones (aka Harrison Ford) on screen for the first time; a huge draw to movie fans.
Second, there’s the appointment of helmsman Jon Favreau. The man behind the über-successful Iron Man movies, he is at the top of his game.
Cowboys and Aliens seems to have tapped into the current zeitgeist.
Primarily an action movie, it incorporates elements of science fiction and fantasy into a Western setting. Based on a comic book series, it’s a project that was first mooted several years ago. Finally, all the elements have fallen into place including the involvement of a stupendously talented bunch of filmmakers, allowing it to see the light of day.
Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard and Damon Lindelof (among other big names) are all attached in various producing and writing roles.
What about the plot? When we first meet anti-hero Jake Lonergan (Craig), he’s battered and bloodied and alone in the middle of cowboy country with a strange, futuristic shackle clamped to his wrist. He’s abruptly set upon by a gang of hostile cowboys but, quick as you like, he demonstrates some fearsome fighting skills and despatches his attackers.
Taking off on one of the horses, this man with no name or memory of who he is, pitches up at the town of Absolution, where lawlessness is rife. Serious tensions are revealed between the town’s citizens, its lawmen and the man who controls it – rich cattleman Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Ford).
Just as conflicts come to a head, an alien invasion shakes everything up.
As the people of the Old West pull together to defend themselves from the technologically-advanced invaders, there is bloodshed, and it’s only through working together – and with the assistance of the mysterious Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde) – that they can win out.
Though the film’s title suggests an irreverent, tongue-in-cheek action comedy in a similar vein to Iron Man, it’s actually a film with a serious tone that’s light on dialogue and heavy on action.
There’s none of the witty rapid-fire exchanges and monologues for which Favreau is known (think Robert Downey Jr in the Iron Man films and his self-penned indie hit Swingers).
Instead, it’s traded in for a new screen language.
The story is in large part communicated visually through wordless action. This places a greater emphasis on individual shots, which become all the more important as tools for conveying meaning.
Favreau creates a rich film, replete with characters we’re so interested in we want to know more about them, as well as fascinating themes and subtexts and a convincingly-realised Western backdrop – all despite its perceived position as an out-and-out actioner designed for brainless summer blockbuster success.
Craig is perfectly cast as the enigmatic stranger who walks into town to save the day. He smoulders with a James Bond swagger that is oh-so-appealing. And, though Harrison Ford is relegated to a supporting role, he hits the right note as he riffs on his grumpy old man persona and proves he’s still able to kick butt with the best of ‘em, in spite of a literal handing-over of the Indiana Jones hat to Craig towards the end of the film.
While you might lament the loss of light-heartedness and irreverence that is present in Favreau’s other work, there are some thrilling action set pieces and inventively savage scenes that go a long way towards making up for their absence.
Besides, who could fail to be hooked in by the prospect of Bond meets Indy on the big screen? Not me, that’s for sure…