Yippe-ki-yay! “Cowboys & Aliens” melds science fiction and the Western into an entertaining and clever action-adventure.
BACKGROUND: “Cowboys & Aliens” began life in 1996 as a Platinum Studios comics series by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg.
Universal Studios and Dreamworks bought the rights in 1997 and the project was put into development. Steve Oedekerk was attached to write and direct but left in 1998 to pursue other projects. By 2004, the rights were acquired by Columbia Pictures, who had no better luck getting the film made.
In 2006, “Cowboys & Aliens” was published as a graphic novel. Universal, Dreamworks and executive director Steven Spielberg again initiated development of the film, and in 2008 Robert Downey Jr. was cast as a former Union Army gunslinger. Downey, working on “Iron Man 2,” brought director Jon Favreau to the film in 2009, but left himself in 2010 to star in the “Sherlock Holmes” sequel.
Daniel Craig was hired to replace Downey, and Harrison Ford was also cast. Favreau hoped their presence would make the film seem less comedic. Favreau later added Olivia Wilde and Sam Rockwell to further pad the film’s pedigree.
SYNOPSIS: A man wakes in the Arizona 1873 desert not knowing who he is or where he came from. The only clues to his identity are a strange metal bracelet on his wrist and unusual wound in his side.
The man stumbles into town, where a terrifying attack from mysterious flying machines helps him begin to unearth his true identity and sets him on a mission to save the world.
THE GOOD,THE BAD AND THE UGLY: The title “Cowboys & Aliens” conjures a certain kind of film. One that you spend a rainy afternoon on the couch watching on SyFy network, ignoring the horrid special effects and atrocious acting simply to fight off boredom.
And it’s like that — except that, thanks to the deft hands of Jon Favreau, it’s nothing like that. And the key to elevating “Cowboys & Aliens” from B-movie shlock to satisfying summer entertainment is casting.
Craig’s experience as James Bond pays off here as the steely-eyed Jake Lonergan. He’s dangerous and rugged. But something in those eyes tells you he’s a good man at heart.
Ford’s Woodrow Dolarhyde is part Han Solo and yet a character apart from any he’s played before. He’s gruff and mean, like the Wild West around him. This performance makes you wonder why he’s had only one other role in a Western film.
Craig and Ford accomplish what Favreau intended by their presence. With so much real testosterone (not the fake Billy Baldwin kind) wafting through the desert breezes, it’s hard to find the scent of camp lingering on the film.
Just as important as the two leads are the others eking out a living in the desert. Wilde is no mere set piece, playing an important role not only in the plot but in humanizing Lonegran. Adam Beach’s Nat Colorado does the same as Dolarhyde’s right-hand man. And Sam Rockwell manages to avoid “National Treasure” Justin Bartha-level annoyance as the violence-shy Doc. Throw in small roles for Walter Goggins, Paul Dano and Keith Carradine and you’ve got one heck of an ensemble.
Let’s not forget Favreau’s role — behind the camera, since he forgoes his trademark cameo for the flick.
The director — with some help, no doubt, from scribes Damon Lindelof, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman — first created a believable Western world and then captured the chaos created by beings beyond his protagonists’ imagination intruding on their isolation. Even without the aliens, one believes a good Western could have come from the film.
The story is surprising solid for a sci-fi Western, amplified by great action sequences and special effects that create a stark contrast between the two “worlds” of this film but don’t distract from their interaction.
THE FINAL SCORE: “Cowboys & Aliens” shouldn’t have worked but it does. Much like Favreau’s “Iron Man,” it approaches its subject with sincerity but still manages to produce a rockin’ good time.
EXTRAS: No extra scenes on this one, though it’s almost worth it to stick around through the credits to see the old-school Universal promo for Hollywood Studios.
"Cowboys & Aliens" is rated PG-13 with a run time of 118 minutes.