Sunday, July 31, 2011

Cliché Cowboys and Aggressive Aliens

     I've always had a soft spot in my heart (along with a soft-on) for the wonderful slow-burning stories of the Western genre. The basic plots are always timeless, and they evoke a time past where everyday life was much simpler and you settled debts with coins or a revolver. Between Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman in the amazing Unforgiven, Guy Pearce in the incredible and surreal The Proposition, and Jeff Bridges in last year's remake of True Grit, Westerns have had a resurgence in quality and awards potential during my lifetime. This is why I had such high aspirations for Jon Favreau's Cowboys and Aliens, which I was hoping would be some of the best summer entertainment I'd see this year. Unfortunately, it wasn't meant to be: Cowboys and Aliens, although entertaining enough for the general public, left me wanting much, much more. Filled with Western and Alien genre cliches and I've-seen-it-all-before action sequences, Cowboys and Aliens tastes like the leftovers of a tasty but underwhelming concoction.
     None of the fault lies on the actor's shoulders, that much is sure. Daniel Craig plays a "stranger" who has just woken up and isn't quite sure who he is, where he is, or what his purpose in life is. But he does have a mysterious bracelet around his left wrist, and he's one bad-ass mo-fo (that part is quickly known, as he dispatches three or four cronies armed with guns in the first five minutes). The Stranger (whose name is Jake), saunters towards the nearest town, presumably to find out what has happened to him. While there, he manages to embarrass a cocky little prick named Percy, the stereotypical my-father-runs-this-town-so-I-can-do-what-I-want cowardly piss ant, portrayed by Paul Dano, who was incredibly more effective in the western-themed There Will Be Blood. Percy's dad, played by a gruff Harrison Ford, doesn't take no for an answer, especially when he learns that Jake is a wanted criminal that has harmed him in the past. This first bit of story has plenty of potential, with some interesting bit characters (Sam Rockwell's Doc and Keith Carradine as the Sheriff come to mind), but the story falters once the Alien ships start causing trouble.
     The film's problems begin with the Aliens (which is basically the story and screenplay) and end with Jon Favreau's competent yet straightforward direction. Just as you think Jake might be totally screwed in regards to his situation, Aliens show up (the townsfolk call them Demons, because what else could it be when the notion of extraterrestrials doesn't even exist), and his bracelet kicks into action, revealing itself to be a powerful weapon against this inhuman foe. Jake and his once-enemy townsfolk go on the run, tracking a creature far from town and ultimately coming up with a plan to try and destroy this unknown, ruthless force. Along the way, they clash with native Indians and Jake's old criminal crew (one of which is portrayed by the wonderful Walton Goggins), but--ultimately--none of this really matters, because Jake's mystic bracelet always seems to kick in when he gets into trouble. Part of this is why the screenplay could use some tweaks: you never really get to know these characters past their stereotypes. Jake is mysterious and powerful, and obviously has a soft heart buried beneath his confusion and sadness. Ford's character is old and battle-worn, but you just know that he's looking for a chance to show his tenderness, especially with a young boy who has recently lost his grandfather. Even (the great) Sam Rockwell's arc is predictable: throughout the film he's sort of a bumbling and incompetent man, who tries to be accurate when practicing his rifle but never hits his target. Do you think he hits his "target" when it counts?
     The Aliens, in regards to their look and ruthlessness, are pretty cool, but the battle scenes involving them failed to stir much excitement or emotions in me. And that's mostly Favreau's fault: in both Iron Man's (specifically the first one), he staged action set pieces with equal parts humor and pomp. Here they're just same old shit. Aliens were scarier in Alien and War of the Worlds, and Cowboys were more realistic and entertaining in Unforgiven and 3:10 to Yuma. Overall, that's the main problem with Cowboys and Aliens: its bits and pieces never cohere into one complete, fun unit. All of this has been done better before, and with the talent involved in this film, any ol' gunslinger could call Cowboys and Aliens a mild travesty.     (C)

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