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Review: ‘Cowboys and Aliens’

Cowboys, Aliens, and Some Token Native Americans

Credit: Universal

Above: Waking up without a clue. Daniel Craig is a new kind of Man with No Name in "Cowboys and Aliens."

"Cowboys and Aliens" (opening July 29 throughout San Diego) had it's world premiere at Comic-Con and director Jon Favreau has been courting attendees there for two years.

Last year Favreau (who also directed the "Iron Man" films) wowed Comic-Con attendees by getting James Bond and Indiana Jones to make their first Con appearances. Both Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford (jokingly arriving in handcuffs) attended the 2010 "Cowboys and Aliens" Comic-Con panel and fans went crazy. This year some 2000 fans got to see the world premiere of "Cowboys and Aliens" at the Civic Theater with cast members as well as Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard in attendance. Now the rest of the world can see what Favreau has cooked up as the film opens nationwide.

Credit: Platinum Studios

The graphic novel "Cowboys & Aliens."

Based on the graphic novel of the same name, "Cowboys & Aliens" opens in the New Mexico Territory of the late 1800s. A man (Daniel Craig) awakes abruptly and finds a strange bracelet/shackle on his wrist. He can recall nothing, not even his name. But when some wandering hoodlums try to rob him, he responds with efficient and lethal skill. Whoever he is, he knows how to kick some ass. He arrives in the town of Absolution, a cattle town run by Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). The town lives in fear of the cattle baron but all that's about to change when aliens -- the kind from outer space and not just across the border -- invade. These aliens are stealing local citizens and causing mass destruction. Only the mysterious stranger proves able to defeat them as the bracelet on his wrist activates and turns into a weapon.

"Cowboys and Aliens" is inoffensive fun. It's big and noisy and loaded with mindless action. Those I know who read the comic said the source material was mediocre at best. The film, then, may be an improvement. The effects are flashy, the cast is fun (Olivia Wilde adds sexy appeal to the film), and for the most part the action keeps moving. Although for how thin the plot is, "Cowboys and Aliens" should have clocked in at a much leaner and meaner run time.

Credit: Universal

Harrison Ford and Sam Rockwell in "Cowboys and Aliens."

The title is actually quite telling. It's "Cowboys AND Aliens" as opposed to a more active and combative "Cowboys VERSUS Aliens." That's because there's not really much conflict in the film. Okay, it's also to play off of the children's game of "cowboys and Indians," and Native Americans make a late appearance to help save the planet. But it's a telling title because it de-emphasizes the conflict and instead just throws cowboys, Indians, and aliens together for a genre mash-up. Sure there's a lot of action but it's mostly pursuit and blowing stuff up. Characters are thoroughly one-dimensional, the aliens are never really developed beyond being a nuisance, and the plot is very simple and linear. This is no "District 9" in terms of developing a complex and interesting plot with real interaction between aliens and humans. It's very straightforward and plain. But at least Favreau seems to know that's what he's making so there's no pretense of the film being anything else, and Favreau handles it with efficiency if not innovation or inspiration. It's fun but in a ho-hum kind of way.

There are plenty of opportunities to play off of western or sci-fi genre conventions but Favreau doesn't exploit those chances. He just barrels ahead missing chances to riff on Sergio Leone's Man with No Name or alien invasion films. The screenplay is credited to "Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman & Damon Lindelof and Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby, from a screen story by Fergus & Ostby and Steve Oedekerk." The "&'s" and "and's" are apparently important in the crediting and whenever there are that many cooks preparing the stew there are usually problems. "Cowboys and Aliens" delivers a serviceable but bland script. It's not really bad but it's simply not very clever.

Ford, who has never been a great actor but has been well cast for certain types of roles, looks grizzled as the Colonel and has a couple good lines. Other than that he kind of sleep walks through the film. Craig has taken to his action hero status well and is convincingly badass as the man they eventually call Lonergan. Wilde, who will also be seen in "The Change Up" this summer, is appealing. It's also nice to see Clancy Brown, Keith Carradine, and Sam Rockwell.

Credit: Universal

Daniel Craig and Jon Favreau on the set for "Cowboys and Aliens."

I have to admit that I was a little worried about the effects after seeing the trailer. I had flashbacks of that god-awful mechanical spider from the Will Smith "Wild, Wild West" debacle. But the aliens and their crafts are handled well but again without much imagination. Although it does feel like a new trend in alien design to make them look like insect or mechanical robot bug. "District 9," "Skyline," "Battle LA," and now this have similar design elements moving away from the "ET," big head, big eyed, intelligent aliens.

"Cowboys and Aliens" (rated PG-13 PG for intense sequences of western and sci-fi action and violence, some partial nudity and a brief crude reference) is mindless summer fun that delivers far more fun than the bloated "Transformers 3." But I have to confess that I was hoping for more from the talent assembled for the film.

Companion viewing: "District 9," "Iron Man," "Attack the Block"

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