Sorry I’m late, but I just had to travel back in time and break the news to my 9-year-old self that James Bond and Indiana Jones teaming up to fight space lizards in the Old West did not turn out to be the awesomest movie in the entire history of the world.
I wonder what 1984-era Burns The Fledgling Film Critic might have made of director Jon Favreau’s leaden, shockingly misjudged sci-fi Western mash-up. I bet he’d probably be as bored as his adult counterpart, wondering why on Earth this glorious, schlocky premise is treated with such humorless solemnity.
Boasting five credited screenwriters, a raft of story-by credits and bearing little resemblance to the comic book from which it takes its goofy title, Cowboys & Aliens begins as a gritty, old-school oater. Daniel Craig’s laconic Man With No Name awakens in New Mexico, with weird wounds, ninja fighting skills and no memory of his past. He’s also wearing a laser-shooting wristband accessory that fulfills random plot functions at arbitrary moments. (It’s a Deus Ex Livestrong Bracelet.)
Craig quickly earns the ill will of Harrison Ford’s crotchety cattle baron, as well as an overstuffed cast of sterling character actors in the town of Absolution. Cowboys & Aliens takes its sweet time playing things straight, setting up complicated interpersonal dynamics and trusty archetypes. But then all of the sudden a bunch of UFO’s show up and everything goes to hell.
In a curious choice, all the more colorful characters are either abducted or killed by the end of the first reel. This leaves Craig and Ford to try to out-badass one another, playing Gruff And Gruffer while starting up a posse to rescue the kidnapped townspeople from an alien spacecraft. It sounds like way more fun than it actually is. The movie is grindingly violent and one-note.
Strange, because director Favreau brought such a sprightly sense of humor to the Iron Man pictures, and his 2001 Cassavetes-homage Made remains one of the great, underrated screen comedies of that decade. The irony of white settlers having to team up with an Apache tribe to rescue their land from a foreign, occupying force that seeks to pilfer resources and commit genocide remains unforgivably unremarked upon. The only moment of levity arrives when we discover that these aliens are here seeking gold.
An exasperated Ford throws up his hands. “What are they gonna do? Buy something?” I have a hunch Dr. Jones ad-libbed that one while reading the script.