With a name like Cowboys & Aliens, you could expect Jon Favreau’s new effort to be rather preposterous. It is a little, but less so than I had hoped. A grizzled-looking Daniel Craig suffering from a bad case of amnesia stumbles wounded into the town of Absolution. Locking horns with the bullying son of the town’s leading citizen, he discovers that he is a wanted criminal – Jake Lonergan. His arrest is, however, disrupted by the arrival of flying alien space craft or “demons” that destroy half the town and abduct its occupants. Lonergan’s mystery is compounded when the strange metallic device on his wrist has the power to bring down the ships. With a small band of townspeople, including Harrison Ford’s Dolarhyde, the cantankerous town boss, they begin a mission to rescue the missing people.
Craig is all sinewy grizzledness rather than brawny polish and any reservations you may have about his American accent are neatly avoided by having the sum total of words he speaks barely hitting double figures. But, with so little to say in order to account for his actions, the message is slightly confused; he is half good boy fighting for the little man, half brutal killer. Harrison is in his grumpy old man mode, occasionally softened with strangely gentle sections, but he comes off well and almost looks like he is enjoying it. Olivia Wilde is perfectly capable but seems strangely pointless – strange only because of how crucial she is to later events. Paul Dano, as Ford’s severely naughty son – by turns scary and whiny – is excellent, but the brilliant Sam Rockwell as the bartender is barely given a look in.
The first, pre-alien, portion has Dolarhyde being such a violent tyrant and his son such a crazed rogue I almost wish the aliens hadn’t turned up; I think I would rather have seen what could have come from the explosive relationship between the Dolarhydes and Lonergan. The action is good. Dirty, loud, bloody and at times satisfyingly gory; fly-infested Native American scalps in the first few moments is an excellent indicator of this. The aliens are big and scary, but they seem so invincible in the face of anything except Lonergan, it’s a little hard to believe they can be overcome.
There are plot holes, and I am not going to be spoilerific, but they are annoying enough to affect the viewing pleasure. This isn’t the main issue with the film, though. It is more the fact that Favreau seems intent on hammering home so many emotive messages and themes – love, loss, father and son bonds, religious beliefs, interracial harmony – that the film is forever swaying between them in rather jumpy fashion. The quickfire changes from one emotional climate to the next is a little exasperating: switching from a weepy Olivia Wilde staring meaningfully into Craig’s eyes, to, minutes later, brutal scenes of violence and mayhem. It would have been a much better film had he not been so set on trying to make it worthy. The fun bits are, as always in his films, fun: the aliens are well done, and the action is very good. It’s just that we could have done without the forced teary portions and the film suffers from trying to be funny, moving, serious, emotional and realistic when what it should have done is stick to its title and have cowboys fighting aliens.