“Cowboys & Aliens” – Way Out West

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By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic

Ever since we were little, my best friend Bob has loved films where worlds collided…especially those sword and sandal epics intermeshed with dinosaurs and a healthy peppering of mythical monsters. So I figure I’ll call and tell him that he’ll probably like director Jon Favreau’s similarly anachronistic “Cowboys & Aliens.”

Of course I’ll preface that it’s no great shakes…that I’m only giving it a 2 & ½. All the same, there’s plenty of action thanks to a story full of good ideas, albeit never written to its best advantage by no less than eight scribes. More importantly, however, there is that hypothetical synergism and those fanciful battle match-ups that come of mixing eras.

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Yet, for all the talk of incongruity, the movie calls attention to a conceit we humans generally harbor when it comes to alien visitation. With relatively few exceptions, the extraterrestrials always seem to come during our time. It’s as if they specifically chose us to engage, invade, displace, enslave or even perhaps eat. Here the notion is dispelled.

It’s 1875 this go-round, somewhere in New Mexico cattle and mining country. And, in the best horse opera tradition, a stranger has moseyed his way into town. Naturally, it isn’t long before we learn that he’s a rather bad hombre. Quite unnaturally, he has an unexplained, heap powerful weapon-bracelet of some sort around his wrist.

Less surprising, this mysterious outsider played by Daniel Craig either has no name or simply ain’t tellin’ what it is. Oddly, though, Ella (Olivia Wilde), a gun toting gal who hangs around the local saloon, recognizes him. Can’t say that he can return the courtesy. Before long, Mr. Craig’s character can’t help but upset the status quo.

Aside from the gaggle of misjudging saddle tramps our tough guy quickly dispatches, most dismayed by his presence are rancher Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), who takes umbrage with his chutzpah, and sheriff Taggart. The lawman, played by Keith Carradine, reckons the loner is Jake Lonergan, legendary gang leader and desperado.

This anxious discord foments into what appears will become a showdown among the three principals. But then a power of the fourth kind presents itself. When the “flying machines” begin their assault, we, like the townsfolk, are thinking, ‘What in tarnation!?’ The war of the worlds, circa 1870s, begins. Like politics, it makes for strange bedfellows.

The storyline that then follows probably read better than it plays. Things move slower than is comfortable, and the bevy of antagonisms that may or may not be resolved doesn’t integrate in a manner necessary to command our full attention. Also disappointing, in the same way that the Spielberg-produced “Super 8” (2011) was, are the invading aliens.

Enough already with these gloppy, pterodactyl-like creatures with bad teeth and bloodshot eyes. Recalling some unkempt H.S. math teachers I had, they lack originality. Granted, they lend themselves in design to the plastic figurines dished out with the junk food marketed to our kids. But hey, how about some variety in our monsters?

In any case, this brings us to the point in the review where the critic must make a value judgment: Respect the material by divulging little more of the plot, or just shamelessly give it all away. Well, this one perches right on the border, its status augmented by some amusing characterizations and a bold attempt to integrate the traditionally immiscible.

Mr. Craig is decently effective as the enigmatic antihero whose identity and value will most likely be decided by how things play out with the varmints from outer space. And Harrison Ford, not quite ready to relinquish his leading man dominance, finds here a way to respectably reconcile that need with the character role he has accepted.

His cattle baron’s relationship with a no-goodnik son (Paul Dano) is but one of the human conflicts to be tested in the crucible created by the interlopers. Also of key dramatic note is Miss Wilde’s Ella Swenson, purportedly a prostitute, who offers some strategic advice.

Her eyes projecting an otherworldly aura (if you get my drift, pardner), she apprises, “You’re like insects to them,” thus suggesting that they’ll underestimate the cowboys who, by this time, have enlisted the help of the local Apaches. Among lesser sidebars, an eastern dude (Sam Rockwell) supplies comedy relief as he tries to prove his manly worth.

Yes siree! I’ve got to call Bob and tell him to see this film, especially since he routinely assures that the print version of my criticisms are used only to line the bottom of a fictional birdcage. As long as you’re not expecting something truly out of this world, the audaciously unconventional “Cowboys & Aliens” can be rootin’- tootin’ fun.

“Cowboys & Aliens,” rated PG-13, is a Universal Pictures release directed by Jon Favreau and stars Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford and Olivia Wilde. Running time: 118 minutes


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