For over 50 years, Steve Crum has written reviews and features for newspapers, magazines and websites, and appeared on radio and TV shows regarding entertainment media. In addition to his years of service on the Governing Board of the Kansas City Film Critics Circle, his Crum on Film weekly column was awarded 1st Place in Kansas and Missouri newspapers via Kansas City Press Club/Heart of America journalism awards. Nearly 2,000 of his film reviews have been posted on Rotten Tomatoes.
Friday, July 29, 2011
'Cowboys & Aliens' provides rip roarin', monstrous time
By Steve Crum
As fresh and catchy as the title Cowboys & Aliens is, the plot has been explored at least once before. Except when singin’ cowpoke Gene Autry starred in Mascot’s The Phantom Empire in 1935, the aliens, called Muranians, had set up shop 20 thousand feet underground, and mostly stayed there. (Actually, one should call these guys inner-earth aliens.) At least they never ventured into the skies via cliched flying saucers, zapping and lassoing cowboys and cows alike as in C & A. Instead, Autry had to contend with boxy-looking robots controlled by humanoids of the substrata.
The outer space invaders in the western-science fiction romp, Cowboys & Aliens are tall, lanky, slimy, and extremely lethal, looking like killin’ cousins of the boogie creatures in both Alien and Predator. (They DID meet up in that one movie, so maybe this is offspring?) And they are hell bent on conquering earth by first experimenting on its inhabitants. Sounds like evil alien behavior in, oh, approximately 83 percent of sci-fi movies since 1950.
Whereas Autry’s film undoubtedly looked cheesy in its day, as now, Cowboys & Aliens is state of the familiar art CGI, along with actors who can truly act (sorry, Gene), great stunt work, and nearly non-stop action that kicks in about 10 minutes into the film, when some range riding cowboys have a fiery, alien encounter. Even earlier, Daniel Craig’s Jake Lonergan wakes up on the prairie with a strange, metallic wristband on, and has to defend himself against three attacking cowboy thugs. (Throughout this and other sequences, Craig’s fighting prowess is all James Bond.)
What follows are cleverly scripted action pieces, centered on a revenge story: Harrison Ford’s cattle baron, Col. Woodrow Dolarhyde, wants to catch and punish outlaw Jake for stealing his gold. Soon after arriving in Absolution to both hang Jake, who has already been jailed, and free his half-witted, gun crazy son, Percy (Paul Dano), from an adjoining cell, the downtown skies are full of UFO’s. Such is not commonplace in New Mexico Territory, circa 1875. Enemies Jake and Woodrow become fast allies as cowboy and cowgirl alike are whisked upwards by alien lariats, and carried away. Woodrow’s son is among the abducted.
There is the cartoonish look of Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks in the lassoing sequences, as humans are whiplashed into the stratosphere. Yet, like Mars Attacks, we discover these aliens are capable of real violence, from torture to disintegration. Incidentally, there is another similarity: Cowboys & Aliens is based upon a comic book; Mars Attacks evolved from cartoonish collector cards.
Director Jon Favreau handles the script (credited with eight writers!) much like he successfully did with the first two Iron Man movies. The action is balanced by fast, clever dialogue, and tempered with great stunts and special effects. While the aliens themselves look much better in half-light, hidden in caves, their outside, daylight appearances are pretty impressive. It should not be a spoiler to expect a third act finale of all-out war between the title characters. Indeed, not only basic cowboys, but a cowboy outlaw gang and a tribe of Apaches unite in the war. By then, the invaders have become every earthling’s mortal enemy. This is a logical turn and, again, no spoiler surprise.
Good guy humans include Keith Carradine’s Sheriff Taggart, Sam Rockwell’s Doc, and Buck Taylor (of TV’s Gunsmoke) as Wes Claiborne. Particularly noteworthy is the mesmerizing Olivia Wilde (“13” on TV’s House), she of the piercing cat-eyes, as the mysterious Ella Swenson.
My only complaint is by the time this was screened, TV previews as well as an HBO behind-the-scenes special had revealed far too much of the fun and games contained within. But that is a complaint of most trailers over the last decade or so. It is time to rename trailers spoilers.
Still, leads Ford and Craig have the necessary chemistry to carry Cowboys & Aliens for its rip-roaring two hours. True, Daniel Craig handles all the rough and tough physicality, while the elder Harrison Ford is, appropriately, much more reserved. They’re still Indiana Jones and James Bond versus monsters, no matter.