Cowboys & Aliens would be a surefire hit. Unfortunately, perhaps driven by the oh-so-serious Daniel Craig, everyone involved decided to fight every impulse to inject humor, lightness and originality. Don’t get me wrong, Cowboys & Aliens is extremely well made and Craig, Harrison Ford, Sam Rockwell and Olivia Wilde give good performances. It’s just that they could have called the thing “Absolution Day” and called it a day. It is so by rote, I expected Bill Pullman to show up as President Grant to deliver a rousing battle speech before they kick alien butt. Cowboys & Aliens is perfectly serviceable and gets the job done, but it could have been so much better.
Craig plays a mysterious stranger who isn’t Clint Eastwood, who shows up in the lawless town of Absolution in the New Mexico Territory circa 1875. He has a strange bracelet and no memory, but it appears that he is a train robber named Jake Lonergan, who is wanted for murder. Wilde plays a prairie knockout named Ella, who seems to know where Jake has been and what the bracelet means.
Ford is Colonel Dolarhyde, the iron-fisted boss of the town, whose ne’er-do-well son Percy (Paul Dano) is a drunken blowhard itching for a fight. Soon, the townsfolk have more to worry about than Percy’s random shooting of deputies; alien ships appear and start snatching people and blowing things up. Jake’s arm shackle activates and helps him blast one of the invaders out of the sky, and he realizes that he is the only one who can beat the aliens.
Cowboys & Aliens echoes Super 8 with its underground slimy creatures, but it is totally missing the latter’s sense of wonder and exuberance. Director Jon Favreau knows action and he does a good job with the battle scenes. Craig gives gravitas to his character, and makes you feel for the loss of his love (Abigail Spencer). If the screenwriters had just embraced the premise’s campier aspects, Cowboys & Aliens could have been out of this world fun.
Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.