Back in the radical '60s, when everything we believed in began to fall apart, Hollywood and its emerging (air quotes) radical fringe began to re-imagine the Great American Western: Cat Ballou, The Wild Bunch, McCabe & Mrs. Miller and others either looked beneath the genre's heroic surface or played it for culturally critical laughs.
Now we're in deep shit in seemingly myriad ways, and we need some heroes. But because you can't go home on the range again, the old ones just won't saddle up.
Enter the alter egos of Indiana Jones (the one and only) and James Bond (the sixth or so), played of course by Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig, respectively. In Cowboys & Aliens, they don chaps to fight an invading army of outer-space terrorists -- 'scuse me, aliens -- circa 1873 New Mexico. Throw in a bevy of hipster stars and character actors -- Paul Dano (prodigal son), Keith Carradine (ethical sheriff), Olivia Wilde (tough gal, sort of), Sam Rockwell (gentle doctor), Clancy Brown (gun-totin' preacher), Adam Beach (loyal Indian sidekick) -- and you have a noisy summer action movie that desperately needs a title. (Not a lot of "cowboys" in that group.)
The plot is derivative, and consciously so. A nameless amnesiac outlaw (Craig) arrives in a terrified prairie town ruled by a tyrannical cattleman (Ford) and unites the divided country -- uh, sorry, town -- to help them fight the eponymous terrorists -- dammit! -- aliens. Guess who wins?
Cowboys & Aliens begins well, and for half an hour, I thought it would develop character. Go ahead: Call me an optimist. But more than half a dozen people worked on the story and script, so it ends up being like your mom, your granny and all of your aunts together in the kitchen, fighting over who gets to spoil the soup. The director, Jon Favreau, generally takes it seriously, but he hardly matters after a while because there's not much to direct.
All of the name actors perform with low-keyed appeal, and there's an irony at its core: The aliens (whew!) want something that greedy Americans are, let's say, in a rush to find themselves.
Westerns generally eschew chatty dialogue, but c'mon: Airplanes haven't been invented, and these people watch flying creatures shoot fireballs from the sky. Were our pioneer ancestors really such dullards, so lacking in curiosity? If they were, then it's a wonder the movies ever got invented. How's that for irony?
Cowboys & Aliens
Directed by Jon Favreau
Starring Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde