In 1873, Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the desert barefoot wearing a strange metal cuff with no memory of who he is or how he got there. Turns out he's a wanted man, but after he's arrested along with Absolution, Arizona's unfavorite son, Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano, "There Will Be Blood"), an attack from an unseen enemy in the skies pairs him with Percy's dad (Harrison Ford) in a war between "Cowboys & Aliens."
Directed by Jon Favreau ("Iron Man") with five credited screenwriters adapting the Scott Mitchell Rosenberg comic book, "Cowboys & Aliens" is a mess of a film with less rooting interest than watching someone else play a video game. There's a certain amount of amusement in watching Craig do his take on The Man With No Name and Ford spitting out his surly one liners (and Dano creates a classic weak-willed entitled creep only to disappear for most of the film), but there is no character development (Dolarhyde begins as a classic corrupt villain and turns hero the minute the aliens invade, then even gets sentimental about a man he's only abused verbally), ridiculous sound design (Lonergan's punches sound like a metal ramrod smashing into a wall, an upended riverboat in the desert creaks like a ship's hull at sea) and absurdly illogical warfare (a hail of gunfire fail to dispatch an alien in one instance, a single rifle blast kills one in the next).
The first alien attack we witness is on a herd of Dolarhyde cattle (which makes no sense as what they're after, we later learn, is gold). Favreau at least stages his next one with a tip of the hat to classic Western standoffs, a ship approaching in the night sky down the center of Absolution's main street. Lonergan frees himself from the overturned 'paddy' wagon and discovers that his cuff is a mind-controlled weapon which can be used against the aliens who created it, but Percy, although freed, is 'lassoed' by one of the ships, along with several other townspeople, including Saloon owner Doc's (Sam Rockwell, "Moon") wife Maria (Ana de la Reguera, "Nacho Libre," HBO's 'Eastbound & Down'). Dolarhyde wants his son back and a posse is formed. A beautiful woman, Ella (Olivia Wilde, "TRON: Legacy"), who approached Lonergan in the saloon, follows him.
Lonergan eventually discovers he was a thief when he meets up with the remnants of his gang, then the group is added to when they run into an initially hostile Indian tribe led by Black Knife (Raoul Trujillo, "The New World," "Apocalypto"). It is with the Indians that Ella's true identity is revealed and Lonergan is fed a potion that brings his fragmented memories into focus, including the loss of his wife, Alice (Abigail Spencer, AMC's 'Mad Men'), to the aliens who traced his stolen gold, and the location of the alien base, disguised in the desert hills.
There's just a whole lot of malarky going on here. The screenplay is utter dreck. The aliens look like an amalgamation of a retro Martian Popping toy, 'the' Alien and Predator. This race has developed a weapon which is mind controlled and works with lasers yet fly about in steampunk design metal ships that trail plumes of black smoke. There is no explanation given as to why the aliens are capturing and holding humans. And a beer costs fifty cents in 1873?
The cast are generally better than their material with the exception of Rockwell who has never been more bland. Clancy Brown ("The Informant!") is terrific as Meacham, the man who helps out the wounded Lonergan after some initial suspicion. The film also features Adam Beach ("Flags of Our Fathers") as Nat Colorado, Dolarhyde's man nanny, Keith Carradine as Absolution's Sheriff and Noah Ringer, star of "The Last Airbender," has his grandson Emmet.
"Cowboys & Aliens" is also the second film of the year to feature a visual that cannot help but recollect the Challenger disaster, a rather tasteless trend. Jon Favreau's had a strong run as a director, drifting slightly downward with last year's "Iron Man 2." Let's hope his latest is only a temporary setback.
Robin did not see this film.
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