Sunday, January 1, 2012

Cowboys & Aliens (2011)

The Old West. A man (Daniel Craig) with a pretty strange wound, a futuristic looking bracelet around one of his arms and not a clue who he is and how he got there wakes up somewhere in the desert. After proving his alpha male badassitude on some ruffians and demonstrating why men with tiny little heads shouldn't wear hats, he reaches the nearest town, where he eventually learns that he is a wanted robber and possible murderer named Jake Lonergan. His trip to a federal jail is cut short when aliens attack the town and, as aliens are wont to do, abduct some of its inhabitants (among them a badly underused Keith Carradine). Fortunately, Jake's fine little bracelet turns out to be some sort of blaster, which doesn't save everyone from abduction but is rather helpful in pushing the rude aliens back to wherever they came from. For now.

Lonergan (still wearing hats though he shouldn't) becomes part of a posse of townsfolk trying to rescue the abductees. Among the (obviously rag-tag) bunch are the local sadistic torturer and potentate with a hidden heart of gold Woodrow Dollarhyde (Harrison Ford, better at wearing a cowboy hat) and his kinda-sorta Apache adoptive son (Adam Beach), the mysterious Ella (Olivia Wilde, much better at wearing a cowboy hat than Craig), a shotgun-toting preacher (Clancy Brown in a too small role), a wasted-on-his non-role Sam Rockwell (he's the mild-mannered shop keeper learning to be A MAN, you know), a goddamn orphan boy and his stupid dog and various other alien fodder characters.

Later developments will see the group team up with some bandits and a small tribe of Apaches as the only hope to save Earth from the scouts of an alien invasion. Because no alien baddies ever follow up on their lost scouts.

Wasted as a bunch of great to competent actors are in it, I did find Cowboys & Aliens much easier going than the full-grown catastrophe its critical reception let me expect. Sure, it's a film full of tired old cliché characters doing tired old cliché things, but it's also a film actually willing to use the oldest tropes in the writing book (and by the way, why are scriptwriters Orczi, Kurtzman and Lindelof so much less intelligent when they write for the movies than when they write for TV?) to entertain an audience in an adequately old-fashioned style. There are some moments of the dreaded "wink-wink, nudge-nudge, we know how silly this all is", but more often than not, Cowboys & Aliens plays its silly nonsense straight, which of course is the way silly nonsense has to be played to be any fun at all.

For me, more problematic than the clichés alone ever could be is the film's length in combination with these clichés. There's really no reason for a concoction about cowboys (and Native Americans and bandits) fighting off an alien invasion to be one-hundred and thirty minutes long when ninety would lead to a faster, punchier and less bloated feeling movie; I don't think Cowboys & Aliens would have lost anything by cutting thirty minutes of character bits (and the orphan and his dog), especially not when all the character bits are taken from the handbook for blockbuster writer beginners and are below actors like Rockwell, Brown, Beach, Carradine and Wilde (see how I cleverly not mention Craig and Ford?).

And here I go again making a film sound much worse than I actually feel about it. For most of the time, Cowboys & Aliens is utterly serviceable - if dumb - entertainment that may be completely forgettable, but is at least mildly exciting while it lasts. Which, sadly enough, makes it much better than your average blockbuster shat out by Hollywood these days.



Doug Bolden said...

Apologies if I have left this comment before, but since it is brought up in the blog entry, figured I'd say it [again?]:

Every movie made in America since about 2000(maybe even a couple of years prior to that) has been at least half an hour too long. The 90 minute films barely warrant a full hour. The two hour summer-fun-time popcorn blockbusters clocking in at 2.5 hours would all have been better movies at the 90 minute mark. Even those like Dark Knight and Avatar that got positive feedback would have been stronger movies since they had long stretches that could have been weeded out without too much of a hit [personally I thought they were ok but have grown sour on the whole mega-hit structure].

houseinrlyeh aka Denis said...

I don't think I agree with you that the length problem applies to all blockbuster-style movies (can't remember a scene in Dark Knight I think the film would have been better off without), but I do agree that these films are too long more often than not.
Never understood why they don't go the Bollywood road and just add musical numbers and more painful comic relief instead of the water-treading Hollywood seems to prefer.