Published Jul 28, 2011Quality ingredients don't make a good dish without a thoughtful recipe. Somehow, the massive stable of talent involved in Cowboys & Aliens has come together to make an uninspired gumbo of genre tropes. Sure, there are individually tasty elements ― the acting is pretty strong across the board and the basic design, effects and cinematography are solid ― yet it'd be difficult to cook up a blander story with this title.
Daniel Craig stars as a man who can't remember anything about his past. In fact, he knows about as much as the viewers ― that he's wounded, lying in the dirt, shoeless, with a funky piece of machinery strapped to his wrist. A confrontation with a pack of bounty hunters quickly establishes that he's capable of kicking more than a little ass without cracking his amnesia-based stoicism.
Walking to the nearest town, Craig finds himself in a typical Hollywood Western community: Clancy Brown (Carnivale) plays a gun-toting preacher; Sam Rockwell is the demure bartender who doubles as town doctor; Keith Carradine (Deadwood) is the sheriff; and Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood) is a whiny, spoiled little prick who thinks his actions have no consequences because his father is the mean, old cattle rancher responsible for the community's primary commerce.
The film works best early on when Craig riffs on a variation of "the man with no name," letting his fists finish confrontations his reticent words fail to curtail. Shortly after the aliens show up, which is quite early, the movie tumbles headlong down a path of mediocrity and contrived sentimentality. Motivations are poorly defined, even taking into account the caveat of memory loss, and the story has little more to say than that bigots will band together in the name of survival against a common threat.
There's plenty of grim death and violence, but demonstrating the MPAA's ludicrous puritanical standards, the bare upper back of Olivia Wilde (well-cast in a role lacking context) is considered partial nudity. It's nice to see Harrison Ford in action again, and he's fine, but it's a shame to see so many great actors utilize their gifts in the service of something so ultimately unremarkable.
Oh well, there's gold in them thar roles, and there's bound to be plenty coming in at the box office, since stars and spectacle are the trade the masses crave. (Universal)