CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: COWBOYS & ALIENS (2011)
By Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
(THE SCENE: A saloon in the old West. Cowboys sit at tables, playing cards and drinking. On the small stage at one end of the room is the cantina band from STAR WARS, playing bizarre-looking instruments and other-worldly tunes. L.L. SOARES enters through the swinging doors and sidles up to the bar. He’s wearing a black cowboy hat and has a toothpick between his teeth).
LS: Gimme that drink that Yosemite Sam used to have in the old Warner Brothers cartoons.
BARTENDER: Coming right up, sir.
(Bartender puts on a welder’s mask and mixes up a bunch of liquids that culminate in a small explosion, then hands the glass over with tongs. LS takes a sip)
LS: Ahhh! Perfect.
(The doors swing open again and MICHAEL ARRUDA saunters in, wearing a white cowboy hat and a bright green vest. He also goes to the bar).
MA: I’ll have your biggest, coldest glass of milk.
BARTENDER: Yes, of course, sir.
MA: And don’t bother pasteurizing it or homogenizing it. I want mine STRAIGHT UP.
BARTENDER (shaking a little): Certainly.
(BARTENDER brings tall glass and puts it in front of MA, who takes a sip)
LS: Unpasteurized did you say? You sure do live dangerously, pardner!
MA: You can say that again.
LS: You sure do live dangerously, pardner!
MA: What is there, an echo in here?
LS: Well, since we’re here to review the new movie COWBOYS & ALIENS, I suppose we should get to it.
MA: You start. I’m enjoying this milk too much. (Belches loudly). (To Bartender): Hey, you got any cookies to go with this?
BARTENDER: Right away, sir.
LS: Yeah, so this week’s movie is COWBOYS & ALIENS. I have to admit, I wasn’t too excited about seeing this one. The trailer didn’t look all that great. Of course, the fact that I’ve seen the trailer like 75 times and have it ingrained in my brain doesn’t help. But this one surprised me a little. As for what it’s about – well the title says it pretty succinctly.
MA: Kind of like SNAKES ON A PLANE (2006).
LS: Yeah, except this one didn’t suck. Well, not completely.
MA: I didn’t think this one sucked at all .
LS: Shhh. I don’t want to give away my verdict in the first page!
MA: Whatever. Continue, pardner.
LS: Right off the bat, we’re thrust into the action as cowboy Daniel Craig—the latest James Bond 007 himself—wakes up to find himself in the middle of the desert with no memory of who he is or where he came from. He doesn’t even have any shoes! He does, however, have some weird-looking manacle-like contraptions on his left arm, and a gaping wound in his side. Even with these handicaps, he makes quick work of some grimy looking bounty hunters who ride by and decide there might be a price on his head.
MA: I liked this opening scene. It was a fine way to start the movie.
LS: Yeah, right in the middle of the action. I liked it, too.
So this cowboy takes his pick of the dead bounty hunters’ clothes and horses while they’re pushing up daisies, and rides into the nearest town, where everyone seems to be afraid of a punk kid who likes to shoot his gun to scare people, Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano), who gets away with his behavior because his daddy is the big cattle baron in those parts and pretty much keeps the town running with his prosperous business. Of course, being new to town, Mr. Craig doesn’t know he’s supposed to run cowering from this annoying kid, and kicks him in the jewels. The sheriff (the great Keith Carradine, who’s been in everything from Robert Altman movies to DEADWOOD, and a whole lot more), brings them both in and locks them up in the jailhouse. Percy for being a nuisance (and accidentally shooting a deputy) and Craig because he looks an awful lot like a guy he saw on a “Wanted” poster.
It’s about this time that the kid’s daddy, Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) rides into town, intent on springing his troublesome son, when some other visitors decide to show up. Except these ain’t riding horses. They’re flying in on brightly lit aircraft that look like giant metal dragonflies. Oh, and they like to shoot out hooked wires and abduct whoever they can get ahold of.
Mr. No Name (we later learn his name is Jake) finally figures out what that thing on his arm is when it suddenly springs to life and blasts one of the spaceships to kingdom come, which just makes him all the more mysterious. Who is the feller and what’s his story, anyway?
The rest of the film involves Craig, Ford, and a bunch of other townspeople going on a trek to find where the spaceships took their loved ones. And along the way they meet up with hostile bandits, hostile Native Americans, and even more hostile alien monsters.
This movie actually turned out to be better than I was expecting, and a big part of that is the fact that it was directed by Jon Favreau. Who knew that the whiny guy who starred in and wrote the indie comedy SWINGERS (1996) and directed and starred in the gangster comedy MADE (2001), with his buddy Vince Vaughn, would later go on to become an A-list director of summer blockbusters? But that’s exactly where his career has gone, and he’s pretty good at it. I mean, this is the same guy who gave us the IRON MAN movies (okay, the second one wasn’t so great, but the first one rocked!), and he replicates some of the same magic here.
MA: Yes, I agree about Favreau . I loved IRON MAN (2008), and in spite of certain aspects of this movie I didn’t find so hot, I loved COWBOYS & ALIENS as well.
LS: Another big plus is the cast.
MA: I agree . The cast is terrific.
LS: Daniel Craig, he of the rugged features and piercing blue eyes, makes a pretty decent cowboy and an effortless leading man. The guy is perfect for this kind of role, and it’s nice to see him do the occasional non-James Bond movie now and then. He’s much too good an actor to be tied to one franchise.
MA: I liked Craig too . He’s one of my favorite actors right now, and he’s very good again here . However, I’ve seen him better . I like him better as Bond, and his performance here is not as strong as the riveting one he delivered in DEFIANCE (2008).
LS: Personally, I prefer some his earlier films like when he played artist Francis Bacon’s lover in LOVE IS THE DEVIL (1998) and as a gangster in movies like ROAD TO PERDITION (2002) and LAYER CAKE (2004). I’m just not a big Bond guy, although I think Craig is one of the best two actors to tackle the role (the other being Sean Connery). It’s funny, I didn’t realize I was a Craig fan from so long ago – there’s something about him that feels current and new.
MA: And while he makes a solid tough guy, based on his performance in this western, he’s no John Wayne or Clint Eastwood . Wayne and Eastwood, in addition to being tough, infused tremendous personality into their roles, and Craig doesn’t do this here. Even Jeff Bridge’s recent performance in TRUE GRIT (2010) was more on target than Craig’s in this movie . Craig was good, but he could have been better.
LS: A lot of people were excited to see Craig paired with Harrison Ford here, but I guess I wasn’t one of them. I’ve never been a big Ford fan, even though I thought his Han Solo was one of the better characters in the STAR WARS series, and he starred in one of my all-time favorite sci-fi flicks, BLADE RUNNER (1982). But I’ve also found him to be kind of wooden and unexciting in a lot of roles, and the INDIANA JONES series never really wowed me (I know, I know, I’m the only one who doesn’t love Indie!).
MA: Well, hold onto your hat, pardner, but I’m not a big INDIANA JONES fan either! I liked RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) a lot, but the rest of the films I could take or leave . Your take on Harrison Ford is interesting . I would agree with everything you said….
LS: We agree on something? Do wonders never cease?
MA: ….except, in spite of the numerous wooden and unexciting roles, I’ve somehow always liked Ford, and I think it’s because he’s good at creating likeable characters . He doesn’t tend to blow you away with deep tremendous performances, but he does act like a favorite uncle who you can’t help but like . So, I was one of those people who was looking forward to the pairing of Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford.
LS: Here, in COWBOYS & ALIENS, Ford is pretty good as a grizzled former soldier who starts out looking like the town bully and all-around bad guy, but eventually turns out to be one of the white hats. He and Craig do have some onscreen chemistry, but I thought Craig dominated every scene he was in with ease.
MA: Yeah, Harrison Ford is cast against type . Curiously, I liked Ford better early on in the movie when his character was more of a bully . Later, when he softens and becomes more of a good guy, I thought he fell back into the more traditional Harrison Ford role, only older and grumpier . I wish he had stayed villainous . It was more refreshing to watch.
LS: I completely agree. I would have preferred if he’d stayed a bad guy throughout, just for something different.
MA: I don’t know about the onscreen chemistry between Craig and Ford, though. I thought that was one of the areas where the film lagged. I didn’t find much chemistry between them at all . A buddy movie, this ain’t!
LS: Really, there are some scenes at the end where they seem to have become buddies!
MA: I disagree. To me it looked like Craig was just tolerating Ford and would have kicked him in the ass if he had the chance.
But you’re right about Craig dominating every scene he’s in. This is definitely Daniel Craig’s movie . He would have carried this movie even without Ford.
LS: Easily. Hey, I thought you said Craig wasn’t as good here as he was in some of his other movies? Now it’s his movie? Make up your mind.
MA: It is his movie . I’ve just seen him better in other movies . He’s that good of an actor, in my book.
LS: Also, Ford’s character is named Dolarhyde, an unusual enough name that made me think instantly of Francis Dolarhyde, Tom Noonan’s sinister character in MANHUNTER (1986) and Ralph Fiennes played the same character in the remake RED DRAGON (2002).
MA: I thought there were some curious names in this movie . Dolarhyde made me think of dollars, and when the film begins, Dolarhyde is quite the greedy character .
LS: Makes sense. He’s definitely greedy, and I don’t see any clues that he’s a serial killer like Francis Dolarhyde. (Laughs) It’s just an unusual name that stuck out for me.
MA: Craig’s character is named Jake Lonergan—he’s a loner, the solitary mysterious man with no name who rides into town a la Clint Eastwood in the Sergio Leone westerns.
LS: Yep, the fact that he couldn’t remember his name throughout most of the movie definitely made me think of Eastwood’s iconic Man With No Name. Except Eastwood’s character was more self-assured and didn’t have memory problems.
MA: Adam Beach plays a character named Nat Colorado . Colorado is the name of the Ricky Nelson character in the classic Howard Hawks/John Wayne western RIO BRAVO (1959) .
LS: Fascinating. It’s also the name of a state. (Laughs)
The rest of the cast is pretty good too, chock full of seasoned character actors from Sam Rockwell (who’s been in everything from the Chuck Barris biopic CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND in 2002 to MOON from 2009) to Walton Goggins (from the FX Channel TV-series THE SHIELD and the new FX series JUSTIFIED) to Clancy Brown as a preacher named Meacham (you might remember him as another preacher, Brother Justin Crowe, in the HBO series CARNIVALE). We’ve also got Olivia Wilde as the main lady here (a lot of people might recognize her as “Thirteen” from the FOX series HOUSE), and a perty one she is, even if I did burst out laughing when they first showed her in a pretty cotton dress and a big ol’ gunbelt strapped across it. She’s just as mysterious as Craig’s character, and we eventually find out why.
MA: I also liked Keith Carradine as the sheriff, and Noah Ringer as the little boy who “grows up” (translation: he learns to kill! Ahhh, rites of passage in the old west!) was also very good .
LS: I’m a huge Carradine fan from way back, and this isn’t his first western role. He was excellent as Wild Bill Hickock in the HBO show DEADWOOD (which I mentioned earlier), played Buffalo Bill Cody in a movie called WILD BILL in 1995 and his first film role was in Robert Altman’s revisionist western, MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER, way back in 1971, when he was more famous for being the brother of actor David Carradine and son of the horror legend, actor John Carradine.
As for the kid, he’s good, but I didn’t think he was anything special. It seems like he’s there more to mellow out Harrison Ford’s character, whose son in the movie is a disappointment, so Ford is drawn to this kid who’s more of a clean slate, and takes him under his wing.
MA: And I thought Paul Dano stood out early on as Percy Dolarhyde, the pain-in-the-ass son of Ford’s character.
LS: He’s great at playing pains-in-the-ass! He was also the annoying preacher in THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007).
MA: My favorite performance though, of the supporting players, belonged to Sam Rockwell as Doc . He was excellent.
LS: I think Rockwell is a very underrated actor who deserves more attention. But I don’t think Doc was one of his better roles. It was good, but he’s had a lot better.
As for the monsters, well, CGI remains a very imperfect tool. So there are scenes where the alien monsters look pretty damn cool, and other times where they look clunky and hurky-jerky, but overall I was pretty impressed with them. I even thought they were just as formidable as the otherworldly critter we saw earlier this summer in JJ Abrams’ SUPER 8, in a few scenes.
MA: I would agree that the aliens ran hot and cold in this movie . They didn’t blow me away by any means . Will there ever be an alien or aliens as frightening as the alien in ALIEN (1979) and its first sequel, ALIENS (1986)? These new CGI aliens just don’t cut it . They’re too cartoonish, and cartoons just aren’t scary!
LS: I agree. The monsters from the ALIEN movies are still the gold standard for extraterrestrial creatures. Thank you, H.R. Giger.
MA: However, like you said, there are times when these aliens are pretty cool-looking . I thought they were better than what we saw in BATTLE: LOS ANGELES (2011) and SKYLINE (2010), but not quite as good as the aliens in DISTRICT 9 (2009).
LS: Yeah, the aliens in DISTRICT 9 were something completely different and original. But I think Favreau’s monsters in COWBOYS & ALIENS are pretty effective for the most part.
MA: I liked the hands coming out of the alien’s chest to grab people . I thought this was cool . They were also kinda menacing, in a PG-13 sort of way, mostly because they abducted humans and performed painful experiments on them . So, yeah, they were kind of disturbing when they weren’t looking like expensive cartoons.
LS: Yep, those crazy hands were an interesting feature. It looks like they were situated right next to the creatures’ lungs in their chest cavities. Weird—and cool.
MA: I thought the alien ships were just OK . They were better when they weren’t seen . When they were shown as lights in the sky, they were creepy . When we see the actual ships, again—cartoon.
LS: Gotta agree with you there.
(GREEDO from the original STAR WARS (1977) —we refuse to call it “A New Hope” —and Boba Fett from THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980) get up from their table and approach the bar. GREEDO says something in some incomprehensible alien language)
LS: What did he say?
BOBA FETT: He said he likes your friend’s vest.
(LS looks up and down at MA’s bright green vest)
LS: He’s no friend of mine.
MA (looks at LS): Likewise, you sidewinder.
LS: Come on, give the weirdo alien your vest.
MA: That’ll be the day.
LS: Sorry guys, I think we have a guy here who doesn’t like to share.
(GREEDO bursts into tears and runs out of the saloon. BOBA FETT shakes his helmeted head and goes after him)
MA: And proud of it!
LS: With its attention to detail, great pacing, and even some scares, COWBOYS & ALIENS is a lot more fun than I was expecting, and it was certainly as good as the superhero films we’ve been seeing this summer (COWBOYS & ALIENS is also based on a comic book –er, sorry, “graphic novel” —by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg and Platinum Studios). It’s no IRON MAN (2008), because nobody here is as entertaining as Robert Downey Jr. was in that movie, but Daniel Craig is close in his intense own way, and it’s easily as good as two other recent summer blockbusters, THOR and CAPTAIN AMERICA.
MA: I actually liked it a little bit better than THOR and CAPTAIN AMERICA.
LS: Another thing I liked about it was the way the movie didn’t immediately become a science fiction film once the aliens were introduced. This movie is as much a western as it is a sci-fi flick, with some storylines deeply entrenched in the time period, and others leading up to the big finale as the bandits, cowboys and Indians all “bury the hatchet” and team up to battle the greater evil from another world.
MA: I agree . I liked the western aspects of this movie a lot . In fact, there were times I almost wished it had been a straight western.
As a whole, I found COWBOYS & ALIENS to be one curious movie, and I’ve used that word several times here during this column on purpose because I found this to be an odd movie that works exceptionally well, in spite of its flaws.
I won’t beat around the bush . I REALLY liked COWBOYS & ALIENS, and I found it to be a very entertaining movie . I saw it in a packed theater (by far, the most crowded theater I’ve been in this summer) and the audience was really into it.
What makes this movie so curious? For starters, it takes two standard formulas that aren’t really all that original, puts them together, and presto! It creates something original . The western plot is as old as the gold rush . A mysterious bad man rides into town, and he beats up on the town bully, only to have the bully’s father, a powerful greedy son of a bitch, ride into town to rescue his son and give this stranger his comeuppance . We’ve seen shades of this plot in countless westerns, from A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964) to RIO BRAVO (1959) and EL DORADO (1966).
The plot of aliens invading the earth to experiment on humans—it goes without saying, there’s nothing original about this plot, either . However, put this story in the old west, and suddenly, you’re onto something.
I’m not sure if I buy the whole thing, the whole gimmick, but I have to say, I think it works because I sat there as entertained and satisfied by this movie as I’ve been by any movie this summer.
LS: There were a few times when it seemed a bit “gimmicky” to me, but for the most part, the genres blended well, and this is a clever concept. But this certainly isn’t the first time that anyone has thought to combine genres this way. We’ve seen several horror/westerns hybrids over the years from the vampire movie, CURSE OF THE UNDEAD (1959) to the dinosaurs in THE VALLEY OF GWANGI (1969), and more recently, the burrowing monsters in J.T. Petty’s THE BURROWERS (2008), which also starred Clancy Brown who was the preacher in COWBOYS & ALIENS!
And don’t forget Z-movie gems like director William Beaudine’s one-two-punch of JESSE JAMES MEETS FRANKENSTEIN’S DAUGHTER and BILLY THE KID VS. DRACULA, both from 1966.
MA: True, but none of these western/horror hybrids involved aliens from outer space.
I also liked the plot point where the cowboys and the Native Americans have to team up to battle the aliens . Sure, we’ve seen this before too, (the enemy of my enemy is my friend) but how many times have we seen these two particular warring groups join forces against a common foe in the movies? Not many.
There’s also a rousing music score by Harry Gregson-Williams, a composer who has a ton of movie soundtrack credits . To name just a few, he wrote the music scores for UNSTOPPABLE (2010), X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE (2009) and the SHREK movies.
All in all, COWBOYS & ALIENS provides grand summer movie entertainment . It’s anchored by a solid performance by Daniel Craig, it has a great cast of supporting actors led by Harrison Ford, it enjoys a decent plot, and its aliens are rather menacing for a summer blockbuster-type movie.
It’s my favorite of the summer movies so far, and I give COWBOYS & ALIENS - three and a half knives.
LS: I liked it, too, but I don’t think as much as you did. It was a great popcorn movie, and while I was watching it, I really enjoyed it, but afterwards, it was kind of forgettable. But this is exactly the kind of movie a lot of people are looking for in the summertime. I liked it at least as much as THOR, my favorite superhero blockbuster of the summer so far, so I’ll give it three knives. Although, I’ll admit, it almost nudged me into giving it that extra half-knife, too, but I think I was a little too generous with CAPTAIN AMERICA, so I’m gonna be a little stingy this time, to balance it out.
(A group of COWBOYS are having a discussion at one of the tables, and the biggest, meanest one of them gets up and approaches the bar).
MEAN COWBOY: You fellers are clearly not from around here.
LS: Yeah, so?
MEAN COWBOY: We don’t like strangers coming into our saloon.
MA: That’s funny, considering your house band is from Alpha Centauri.
MEAN COWBOY: Enough with the jokes. You two better skedaddle if you know what’s good for you.
LS: Or else what? You gonna shoot us?
MEAN COWBOY (takes a menacing pause and then says): Maybe.
(LS takes out a weird black box and looks at it)
MEAN COWBOY: Now, what might that be?
LS: It’s called a Taser.
(He shoots it at the COWBOY, who drops to the ground and starts screaming. The rest of the cowboys cower to the edges of the room)
LS: You see, Michael, this is why I love time traveling. We can always introduce ornery types like this guy to new technologies and learn them something.
MA: Yeah, and completely mess up the space/time continuum in the process.
LS: Oh well, that’s life.
MA: We probably should get going, after all. We’ve got another movie to review next week, and time travel isn’t an exact science.
LS: True enough. (to bar patrons) Later, gators.
(MA and LS leave the saloon to the strains of menacing Ennio Morricone music)
© Copyright 2011 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
Michael Arruda gives COWBOYS & ALIENS ~ three and a half knives.
L.L. Soares gives COWBOYS & ALIENS ~ three knives.