When did Harrison Ford – the once and always Han Solo and Indiana Jones – morph into Walter Brennan? True, he never takes out his teeth in Cowboys & Aliens and he never once says, “Dagnabit!” But his cranky cattle baron Woodrow Dolarhyde is not only cut from the same old coot cloth of many of Brennan’s characters, he also could be a cousin of Brennan’s My Darling Clementine villain Old Man Clanton – that is until the third act when Dolarhyde turns warmer and fuzzier. An actor who needs to be liked is a terrible thing.
In casting, at least, Cowboys & Aliens, feels very traditional. Daniel Craig makes a nice substitute for Steve McQueen. Sam Rockwell is a serviceable Jimmy Stewart type. One can easily imagine Justified‘s Walton Goggins, here seen in the supporting role of sniveling black hat Hunt, making a career out of similar parts back in the day when oaters were a cinematic staple. Cowboys & Aliens‘ Sheriff John Taggart Keith Carradine has toiled in Westerns off and on for 40 years, with credits that include guest stints on TV’s Bonanza and high-profile parts in The Long Riders, Wild Bill, and Deadwood. Paul Dano, playing Dolarhyde’s spoiled son Percy, is an inspired choice, with a face that would not be out of place among the collection of 19th -century photos in Wisconsin Death Trip.
It is unfortunate that the fine roster of talent that director Jon Favreau assembled is in the service of this weak movie, the latest graphic novel to make the transition to screen. The tale of a community’s fight against the gold-mining space aliens that are bent on laying waste to humanity is neither offbeat nor witty enough, at least in comparison to, say, The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. and its golden orb, the mortally wounded William Blake wandering the wilderness in Dead Man, the homoerotic subtext and weirdly placed rock bands in Zachariah, or just about any episode of the old Wild Wild West TV series. And despite being from an apparently advanced civilization, the aliens seem barely more sentient than the ravenous monster earthworms from Tremors (a movie that Cowboys & Aliens resembles in some aspects, or would if it had a sense of humor).
The movie is replete with Western archetypes. Craig as amnesiac outlaw Jake Lonergan is the antihero whose brains, courage, and propensity for violence make him a natural leader. Rockwell, playing barkeep Doc, is the tenderfoot who rises to the occasion. Adam Beach’s Nat Colorado is the Native American raised among whites who is not entirely at home in either society. Ford and Dano represent the moneyed classes. Goggins’ gang would be the villains in any other movie. There is also a whole American Indian tribe. And while it is to be expected that they are all going to have to set aside their differences to fight their common enemy, the rough edges of conflict and any genuine tension are washed away as Cowboys & Aliens shifts into a kind of ‘Kumbayah” moment. It all begins to feel like one of those kids’ T-ball games where everyone gets a trophy.
Matthew Libatique’s cinematography is gorgeous and Henry Gregson-Williams contributes an appropriately evocative score. Craig is terrific. He really is the heir apparent to McQueen. He’s got the look, the charisma, and the coolness. Rockwell and Goggins also standout among the large ensemble. These are all reasons to see a film that is otherwise a waste, satisfying neither as a Western nor as science fiction. – Pam Grady