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Friday, 29 July 2011

AFICIONADO REVIEW: "COWBOYS & ALIENS"

Lonergan (Daniel Craig) and Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) escape a colossal alien explosion in COWBOYS & ALIENS. Images: PARAMOUNT/UNIVERSAL.

Note: this review contains mild spoilers.

The previous, all too few mixings of sci-fi and fantasy into the equally intriguing and atmospheric environs of the real-life period of the American West haven’t exactly hit the mark of success with worldwide audiences, the most recent example being THE WILD, WILD WEST TV series conversion, which swiftly proved to be the film that Will Smith doesn’t like to showcase on his box office success film career CV these days!, but multi-talented director Jon Favreau and his equally fine company of actors and behind the scenes dream-makers have far greater luck on their side in their own new endeavor- the enjoyable COWBOYS & ALIENS- which mixes the two worlds of low tech Humanity against high tech alien horror in a cinematic way that, for the most part, provides a good sense of fun and notable excitement.

The highly anticipated big screen combo of hero icon heavyweights Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford is already enough to guarantee the film a quite sizable quota of world cinema audiences firmly planting their butts on seats to see it this July and August, but, beyond their notable inclusion and what was likely a fun pitch made by the writers towards the studios about the project, what about the movies all-important story and characters? Well, if you’re in the right frame of mood, COWBOYS & ALIENS, despite a few clunky moments of pacing here and there, works for the majority of its two hours running time and is diverting, crowd pleasing enough adventure fare. Kudos must also go to its original comic creator, Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, in that its translation to the big screen, albeit described by the filmmakers as being loosely based on the graphic novel, works as well as it does. And isn’t it amazing, after all these years post STAR WARS and ALIEN, that such a great idea like this for a film hasn’t been done before for the big screen?
Alien alarm bells ring for the captured Lonergan.
Ultimately, C & A’s plot just about manages to hold up to successful scrutiny, although I think the aliens of the title, and their reasons for being on Earth, could perhaps, like the film in general, have been further developed. One plus to them is that there’s an interesting twist/revelation which sees the creatures as being not too removed from the Human cowboys with regards to some of their personal motivations. In certain facets the film could also be seen as being like a kind of prequel to Steven Spielberg’s Executive Produced FALLING SKIES TV series, too, what with its similar type of hand held invasion scenes, gritty action and kidnapping of people (in this case children) by an alien race, whose early goals for the planet have to be determined by the brave Human resistors. Perhaps they’ll be more development of COWBOYS 1873 arrived aliens if the film makes enough money at the box office to warrant a sequel-you never know!

Despite the intriguing inter-mixing concept and the most bloodthirsty creatures to have faced the American West since Gwangi, I still don’t quite know how the film really needed five writers to work on a script which ultimately proves to be functional rather than spectacular, accompanied with dialogue that’s mostly work-man like and acceptable rather than superior. Though credit to them for some of the occasionally noteworthy and ingenious new spins on the western and sci-fi/horror genre that occur throughout the film, and in their conceiving of the obligatory stunning action set-pieces showing man versus creature, experienced film and TV veterans, and well-known geeks of all things sci-fi and fantasy, Damon Lindelof, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman do a solid but ultimately not revolutionary job here in bringing the ambitious tale to life. From looking at the final movie I certainly felt the script needed a bit more of a fine tune-up in certain areas before filming. Perhaps a set in stone release date by the studios made such a thing impossible?
A new visitor arrives in Absolution!
Bringing the final script to life, Favreau clearly works hard and imbues his enthusiasm into the project, resulting in a yarn that’s certainly a more enjoyable showcase for his talents than his previous IRON MAN 2 sequel would turn out to be, which I found a bit of a mess in its middle section. Here he also pays his dues and respects to the western genre with some neat referencing to many established classics, like THE SEARCHERS and some of the Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood Spaghetti tales, and keeps the movie as believable as possible as the alien terror plot line begins to lock hold of it. A strong behind the scenes team supports him in his goals, including cinematographer Matthew Libatique, whilst British Special effects maestro Roger Guyett and legendary RAIDERS Stunt-man Terry Leonard add extra bangs for your buck support as Second Unit Directors with some well staged action and effects sequences (the cgi/model effects, as usual from George Lucas’s ILM, now spread across San Francisco and Singapore, are nothing short of outstanding and exciting in places), whilst Harry Gregson-Williams provides a memorable main Western theme for the adventure.
Alien hunting: Lonergan, Dolarhyde and Ella (Olivia Wilde)
As for the costly film’s star powered lead duo, Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, their casting is inspired and their performances ultimately rise above the scripted material. With his modern day world-weary looks, which still bear the occasional twinkle in the eyes, Craig remains the closest modern-day actor we have that’s the equivalent in coolness to Steve McQueen, bringing edginess and mystery to Jake Lonergan in the films early start and the expected heroism needed by its finale, in a part which, ultimately, I couldn’t really see the equally talented Robert Downey Jr.-the projects original lead choice- in at all. Craig makes the mostly silent, stereotypical Western figure of the man-with-no-name stranger an intriguing proposition once more for cinema audiences, and in the action scenes, he’s magnificent and brutally physical (skillfully re-reminding us as to why he’s such a terrific choice for James Bond in this new age of complex, flawed and fascinating heroes!), especially in the beginning, as the amnesiac form of Lonergan emerges, wandering lost in the harsh desert climes, and during the first spectacular night time attack by the aliens on the town: the moment where he fires his wrist clamped alien weapon will surely become an iconic modern cinema scene (and also be the kind of cool toy that kids of all ages would surely want to have-I can see them all running around the school playgrounds and pretending to have them on their arms facing off against invisible monsters this summer/Christmas. In general, the lack of any merchandise for this film astounds me- a shame as I can further picture in my mind kids playing with COWBOYS & ALIENS figures and accessories, especially if the movie had been made in the early to mid-seventies. Perhaps this dearth is due to Daniel Craig’s ultimately snobbish hatred of anything commercial that bears his likeness (C’mon, Daniel, back in the seventies you must have played with STAR WARS figures bearing Harrison Ford’s Han Solo face on them!). 
He's still got it! Harrison Ford impresses as Dolarhyde.
And talking of that other big star, Ford, presumably considering himself to have better luck this time in his encounters with aliens, both dramatically and action-wise, than he had in his screen-time with those pesky Crystal Skull-ians in the now likely final INDIANA JONES film, once again relishes the rare chance, for the first half of the film, to portray a baddie, this time a battle-hardened and embittered Cattle Rancher whose business empire just about keeps the small, far-off the Beaton track town of Absolution alive. An almost Ebenezer Scrooge-type with a western hat and a Colt-45, and possessing the great name of Woodrow Dolarhyde, the actors memorable first scene has him torturing one of his hands whom he thinks has been drunkenly responsible for blowing up his prized cattle, when, in actual fact, the boss should really be looking up to the skies for the real culprits…

With his constant scowl, stick in the mud mentality and despicable sway, this role of Dolarhyde would surely have been the kind of acting challenge taken up by Gene Hackman, who made great work within this type of genre for THE QUICK AND THE DEAD and UNFORGIVEN, had he not retired. In any case, Ford is totally watchable and consistently good throughout the film. Smelling the potential of a successful movie, despite early script rawness, Ford certainly makes the most of things, working well with the younger cast as their characters are soon forced into an uneasy alliance against the aliens and have to work out a way to defeat them and rescue the captured townsfolk.

Now entering the next stage of his career as a fine character actor, Ford’s instincts in noteworthy projects remain strong, and, though he may not want to make pictures like COWBOYS & ALIENS all the time, he’s smart enough to know that he has to make the occasional movie of this scale to keep his profile and box office command visible-fans still expect, and want, to see Ford, the modern day equivalent of Glenn Ford of Gary Cooper, in films/projects this big and exciting. Films that people will actually watch for a long time to come. COWBOYS & ALIENS certainly fits all these beneficial criteria for both the actor and for us.

Also most welcome is the fact that Ford is still pretty sprightly for a man of his age and, in action on and off his trusty horse, certainly shows the odd touch of his former Indiana Jones self here and there, surely much to the audiences delight. Dolarhyde has a bit of the embittered curmudgeon about him, but he soon proves a good and loyal man to have your back in battle. Together, Ford and Craig in their roles have great chemistry - though a few more scenes of them as a duo would have been much appreciated. Craig also pays welcome homage to Ford and Indy for a couple of scenes of his own, especially with regards to his hat, that are also good fun, with a kind of ingenuity and character invention that the film could, and should, have had more of…
Olivia Wilde as the mysterious Ella.
A fine, if a little underused, supporting cast backs up our heroes in the midst of the chaos. Olivia Wilde continues to build on the success she’s had as an actress with the likes of her prior work in the TV series HOUSE, and her excellent performance as Quorra in TRON: LEGACY where she completely outshone its lead star, Garrett Hedlund , and successfully held her own against a major heavy weight like Jeff Bridges. In COWBOYS she makes the most she can from the script and the camera (which really likes her), adding as much mystery and beauty that she can to the mysterious figure of Ella, and her soon to be revealed connection to Jake Lonnergan and his important backstory linked to the aliens. Female audiences will get their obligatory thrill at seeing a shirtless Daniel Craig at one point, but those hoping that he and the lovely Miss Wilde will get it on and have some lust in the dust will be disappointed-there’s just the briefest of wet clothed flirtation/audience titillation before the next phase of the plot-the action showdown- kicks in.
Dolarhyde and Doc (Sam Rockwell) observe the drama.
Additionally, Sam Rockwell brings crowd-pleasing depth to what is an essentially underwritten role as Bartender turned resistance fighter, Doc (though one fun scene between him and Ford, seen in early trailers, is surprisingly not in the finished film). THE SHIELD’s TV breakout Walton Goggins is also fun as a shady character, Hunt, whose allegiances go whichever side the wind is more favourable. Other fine character acting support is less developed and more stereotyped as the film goes on, though the ever reliable Keith Carradine (as Sheriff Taggart), Clancy Brown (as town priest Meacham) and Adam Beach (as Dolarhyde’s American Indian colleague Nat Colorado) always bring integrity to whatever roles they inhabit, and certainly possess the required American West period battered and every line tells a story look about their withered faces…

Oh, and there’s a cute dog in it, too. Aw, bless…

Representing Humanity’s gruesome opponents, its getting more and more difficult to create scary and unique monsters, but these hybrid ALIEN/PREDATOR’ish creatures have a good look about them, and there’s some fun build-up moments and audience chills, as Favreau uses all the tricks of the trade, and some good “steals” from past film-masters like Ridley Scott and buddy Steven Spielberg, to build tension in bringing the nasty alien beasties to CGI reality. Their half hour into the film first appearance is nothing short of superb and well realized in the best WAR OF THE WORLDS tradition, as alien lasso protuberances bear down from the sky to pluck up the innocent townsfolk of Absolution (as well as the not too innocent figure of Dolarhyde’s two pieces short of a full loaf son, Percy, played by LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE’s Paul Dano).
Daniel Craig and director Jon Favreau enjoy a little on location target practice choreography.
With our players making their way to an explosive final confrontation in the Arizona desert, which satisfyingly wraps things up but also leaves a few plot threads dangling for a possible future continuation, my ultimate summary on COWBOYS & ALIENS: well, okay, I can’t say that its as fully developed as I’d hoped it would be, but the core central idea of the film proves strong, it has a beginning, a middle and an end (which really means a lot these days, believe me!), and the cast are great. Despite some poor criticisms from my American press counter-parts, the film ultimately makes no pretensions about what it is and what its overall intentions are: namely, to provide family audiences with an enjoyable Summer blockbuster that’s a cut above the norm and full of thrills, spills, creepy horror (the effective scenes showing the Zombie-fied towns peoples may scare the little ones a bit!) and fast-paced, gritty action. In all these respects, COWBOYS & ALIENS, possibly the start of a whole new intriguing era of sub-genre mixing, delivers the goods.
COWBOYS & ALIENS is now playing in the US and in the UK from August 17th.
AFICIONADO RATING: 8.5 out of 10

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