Wild Wild West


Last November, when the first trailer for “Cowboys & Aliens” was released, there was a collective gasp of “wait, what?” among audiences across the country. All that could be deciphered from those remarkably ambiguous two minutes was that, as the title would suggest, there would be both cowboys and aliens, which in and of itself is quite an unusual combination. Most regarded the trailer with humor. It seemed to be a comical “Snakes on a Plane”-esque hoax carried out by none other than Mr. Steven Spielberg himself. And undoubtedly, most, if not all audience-goers will shell out the ten dollars purely to find out if “Cowboys & Aliens” is an elaborate joke or an epic hybrid action flick… or both.

Thankfully, “Cowboys and Aliens” answers that question nearly immediately. Outlaw Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) awakens suddenly in the desert to discover that he is alone, wounded, wearing a metal cuff that he can’t remove and  has no recollection of who he is. After skillfully beating off would-be assassins, he sets off to find shelter in the form of the frontier town of Absolution, home to Civil War hero Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). After getting into a kerfuffle with the Colonel’s dimwitted and hysterical son (Paul Dano), Jake finds himself on the bad side of the most powerful man in town. But all disagreements must be put aside when aliens come to Absolution to kidnap loved ones as part of their desperate search for gold. The two former enemies must work together with the help of the mysterious Ella (Olivia Wilde) to take down the aliens and bring home their family.Is it ridiculous? Absolutely. But, it’s also fun and unapologetically camp. “Cowboys & Aliens” walks the fine line between parodying the western and science fiction genres and making a respectable fusion of both. It plays it straight enough to maintain a legitimately serious front, but its also in on the joke.

Glances are held that millisecond too long, turning suspense into comedy. Relationships, both familial and romantic, are hammed up to a hokey, pseudo-dramatic level. But all the hyperboles appear to be intentional and do receive the desired laugh. Conversely, the action scenes are genuinely intense and without unnecessary gimmicks. Better still, the CGI aliens effortlessly meld into the stylized period setting that so beautifully captures the West in all its wide open glory.

What really makes “Cowboys & Aliens” work is that it never loses the plot, no matter how ridiculous the plot may be. There are points early on where the audience might not have any idea what they are watching or where it’s going, but director Jon Favreau (Iron Man) always seems to. He never gets buried in unnecessary details or subplots, and keeps the story on track. However, there are minor holes that you just have to go with. Dolarhyde pretty much sums up the absurdity of the aliens’ desire for gold when he remarks, “What are they going to do with it? Buy stuff?” In the end, however, none of the trivial oversights affect a story brimming with fierce action, comedy and effective performances.

To their credit, both Craig and Ford deliver great performances. Granted, Ford is playing a variation of the role he’s always played, Indiana Jones. As Colonel Dolarhyde, he’s tough, stubborn and willing to deliver a chilling one-liner. He even has the hat, although sadly he’s without his satchel. Craig, however, is the stand-out. He might still look a tad too James Bond-like with his supernatural blue eyes and chiseled features, but he’s remarkably convincing as the strong yet brooding renegade. Even more impressive, Craig nails the Western accent, seamlessly adapting to his surroundings and completely losing all traces of British affectation.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Wilde. Her character, while ultimately vital to the progression of the story, is dull and underdeveloped with no distinguishable traits or nuance. Wilde spends nearly all of her screen time standing completely still and staring blankly at the camera, at times appearing to mimic Stephen King’s Carrie. Even worse, the robot is set up, rather preposterously, to be the romantic lead. She and Craig have about as much chemistry as two appropriately-sized slabs of plywood. Their only moments together are spent staring shallowly into each others’ similarly blue eyes and their obligatory kiss is beyond clichéd.

The romance might be lackluster, but it doesn’t take away from the oddly fun story. “Cowboys & Aliens” might seem like a stretch, but bear with it. It isn’t the Oscar-nominated western “True Grit,” nor does it try to be. But it is, in all fairness, a decent summer action movie worthy of the ten dollar price of admission from all the skeptics.