Of all the things one expects a movie called Cowboys & Aliens to be, "boring" is not the first adjectives that jumps to mind. Yet, despite a fairly cool lead performance by Daniel Craig and palatably non-senile work from Harrison Ford, the film falls flat on its face, thanks to a poor script by six writers who never manage to find anything worth caring about in any of the movie's numerous characters, and direction by Jon Favreau that just plain fails to get any pulses pumping.
Six writers. Six writers! There is no explanation for why a film based on an existing comic book should take six writers to hoist it onto the silver screen, and no excuses for why the results should be this lifeless. Among the culprits: Children of Men co-writers Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, Transformers scribes Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, "LOST" co-creator Damon Lindelof, and, uh, Steve Oedekerk...the guy who wrote, directed, and starred in Kung Pow! Enter the Fist. At the very least, one might expect the movie to exhibit a bit of schizophrenic weirdness, but whoever typed the last period on the last page must've gone through and viciously cut out anything resembling personality or nuance. This is as straightforward as they come: aliens kidnap townsfolk, and other townsfolk go to the aliens to get the kidnapped back.
Leading the charge is Daniel Craig's mysterious loner. Craig is pretty magnetic, sporting a coolly threatening American accent and an unflinching gaze, but he's yet another in an endless line of characters with amnesia, which is quickly becoming the most overused device of the past 15 years. Is there any discernable advantage to giving a character amnesia over having them keep secrets? Are there any layers to be gained from a character who the writers have forcibly turned into a blank slate, leaving him with all of his hip-holster badassery while essentially wiping his slate clean so the audience can like him regardless of his apparently dark past? Some of the best cinematic cowboys played the angles, but Craig's character is boring in comparison. He helps for no reason, and expects no reward.
Then again, boring might be a good thing in comparison to what the writers give Harrison Ford's Woodrow Dolarhyde and Olivia Wilde's Ella Swenson. It's hard to address Swenson without spoilers (the movie takes a turn that looks like a cheap trick, then turns out to be up to something twice as complicated and totally meaningless), but Ford is saddled with a no-good son (Paul Dano) who gets kidnapped by the aliens. The first 20 minutes illustrate that the kid is a complete ass, so instead of having Dolarhyde appear to care about his actual kid, the film gives him a couple of surrogates instead. Nat Colorado (Adam Beach) is one of Dolarhyde's right-hand men harboring a secret dream of going into battle with Dolarhyde, who has some sort of impressive military background, and Emmett Taggart (Noah Ringer) is a frightened sheriff's son who gets a few unsolicited lessons in becoming a man with Dolarhyde's favorite knife. It's not cloying, which is a relief, but there's no reason to care whether or not either of these elements pay off. Dolarhyde has no investment in either character, and neither does the movie. Worse, Craig tormenting Dano is half the fun of the first 20 minutes; continuing it through the rest of the movie might've been an "easy" play, but why break what isn't broken?
In terms of the bigger picture, the film is an endless string of conveniences that solve all of the film's artificial problems, from "Where are the aliens?" to "We need more men!" Some of these issues could've been overlooked if the movie was a trimmed-down, rock-'em-sock-'em bit of entertainment, but Favreau can't bring the material to life. As with so many films today, there's no tension or action geography during big chaotic scenes, resulting in 20 minutes where it looks like quite a few people are getting killed and then at the end everyone you recognize either got a dramatic, tear-filled death scene or is still alive. The aliens are kind of neat, with chests that open up so their arms can come out, but they're still not particularly memorable, and like the heroes, they're arbitrarily dangerous/anonymous. The closest the movie comes to tension is a couple of jump scares; and even the novelty of the other scenes, with the ships that lasso up innocent bystanders, wears off pretty quickly as the victims become increasingly irrelevant. Overlong and underwritten, Cowboys & Aliens is a car crash of filmmakers unable to bring enough to the table.
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