Cowboys & Aliens has received some pretty negative reviews and didn’t do as well as hoped at the box office (check out this awesome video of Harrison Ford taking out his anger on a Smurf doll), but it’s actually a pretty good movie that’s worth seeing, if for no other reason then to see Harrison Ford finally in something that’s decent again. It’s been at least ten years since his last half-decent movie (see What Lies Beneath, 2000).
The movie is perfectly cast and looks amazing. All of the actors seem to have the right spirit for a movie about aliens and cowboys going to war, and the pacing definitely picks up as the story moves forward. The main problem I have with the movie is that it’s just not as fun as it should be. The cast and crew have talked a lot in recent interviews about how they are taking a somewhat ridiculous plot and playing it straight. The problem is that they’re playing it a little too straight, in my opinion. Word has it that earlier scripts were much campier, more comedic takes on the story. When Ron Howard, along with Steven Spielberg and Brian Grazer (see a great interview of the three of them with director Jon Favreau) came aboard (along with Steven Spielberg & Brian Grazer) as a producer, he was instrumental in changing it to a more serious-minded western. He may have had a point, as I don’t know how campy the original scripts were, but I think they took it a bit too far (why are they listening to someone who hasn’t made a good movie since Apollo 13 anyway?).
The movie needed more laughs, more interaction between Ford and Daniel Craig, and less grumpiness from Ford’s tough, gruff Woodrow Dolarhyde. There is a scene where the cowboys are captured by Indians in which Ford, for the first time I can remember, reminds me a lot of Han Solo, his famous character from the Star Wars trilogy. It’s very brief, but it’s probably the only part of the movie that really gets it right. The rest of the movie, Ford is underused and for the first two-thirds of the film, he’s pretty much just a grumpy old man with not much to like. The movie needed Ford to be the fun, likable guy we remember from such films as Star Wars, Indiana Jones, The Fugitive, and Patriot Games. Instead, we get a little bit of that Harrison Ford, but also the older, grumpier version we’ve seen in some of his more recent work. It’s not that Ford does a bad job (in fact he’s easily the best part of the movie), it’s more that we know how great he can be, and it feels like a waste of great talent. He shows glimpses of greatness throughout the movie, but it never quite comes together.
Aside from Ford, the rest of the cast does a really good job. Daniel Craig (the best James Bond since Sean Connery) is fun to watch, as are some of the cowboys they meet along the way, specifically Sam Rockwell as Doc, and Walton Goggins, best known for his work on FX shows The Shield and Justified (a great show, BTW) as a former associate of Craig’s Jake Lonergan.
In all, Cowboys & Aliens is a success and worth your time, but I was hoping for more from Jon Favreau, the man behind Iron Man, which is one of my favorite super hero movies mostly because of the humor. I feel like for a movie about cowboys fighting aliens, it’s still not ambitious enough. Cowboys & Aliens could have used some of that Iron Man magic (maybe Robert Downey, Jr. should have been involved?). Or maybe it just needed another rewrite, or a couple less.
Verdict: Consume (See it now. Take money out of your emergency fund, retirement, your kids college savings, whatever you have to do to see this movie right now, in the theater)