Cowboys & Aliens Review
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On paper, and in the cult comic book series from which it was adapted, Cowboys & Aliens seems like a no-brainer. Take two easily recognizable and thematically connected genres and mash them together. For the cinematic version, mix in some old-school period decor and new-school CGI, cast a couple of big names in the leading roles, sit back, and watch the summer ticket sales roll in.

Except something seems to have gotten lost in the construction of this genre-blender. It starts off as a straight-up Western, as Daniel Craig’s grizzled and amnesiac gunslinger Jake Lonergan wakes up in the dessert with a hole in his gut and a weird metal bracelet on his left wrist. After single-handedly taking down a group of bandits, he wanders into the small town of Absolution, where he quickly runs afoul of both the law and extremely cranky local cattle baron Woodrow Dollarhyde, played by Harrison Ford.

Cue the aliens, who show up in dragonfly-shaped aircraft, blow stuff up real good, and kidnap half of the town’s inhabitants. Lonergan’s new accessory suddenly lights up and turns out to be a kind of scanner/death ray that can take down the aliens’ ships with one hit. It takes a little maneuvering, but eventually Lonergan and Dollarhyde, aided by Olivia Wilde’s mysterious Ella, put together a posse and embark on a rescue mission.

It’s a fun ride, including more bandits, Indians, surprise reveals, nasty alien critters, and lots and lots more explosions. But, at the same time, none of it feels all that fresh. Pastiche can be a tricky business. Do it right and everything comes together seamlessly into something brand-new and unexpected. Miss that mark and all of the pieces, no matter how well-made individually, never quite cohere.

The cowboys fare the best, I’d say. Cowboys & Aliens manages to avoid the campy pitfalls that sank antecedents and complete disasters Wild Wild West and Jonah Hex. Craig and Ford spend the entire movie growling at each other and everybody around them, but in ways that feel right for the genre. Wilde is improbably gorgeous, and Sam Rockwell shows up in a supporting role as a saloon owner whose light touch goes a long way to balance out the leads’ earnestness.

The aliens are pretty strictly CGI nastiness. They’re reasonably threatening, but they suffer from a common problem in the genre. The more you learn about them, especially their necessary and exploitable weaknesses and almost nonsensical reasons for being there, the harder it is to take them seriously. Still, they manage to provide a few creepy moments, and, as I may have mentioned earlier, a lot of explosions.

As a long-time fan of both genres, I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy Cowboys & Aliens. For those for whom sci-fi adventures are too silly or westerns too old-school, or just those who are already tired of lightweight summer action flicks, there’s just nothing new here to change those opinions.

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