Review: Cowboys & Aliens

bill bodkin reviews the new sci-fi western epic…

Plot: An amnesiac gunslinger (Daniel Craig) with an alien weapon attached to his wrist is the only hope for a New Mexico town that has been attacked by aliens. He leads a posse, along with with a war-jaded cattle baron (Harrison Ford) and a mysterious woman who may be the gunslinger’s identity (Olivia Wilde), to save the town’s kinsfolk who have been abducted by the aliens.

Cowboys & Aliens is the latest installment of a tried and true summer tradition — a big budget, shoot-the-works FX epic with an all-star cast. It’s big on chills and thrills — an escapist film that allows you to check your worries at the door and be thoroughly entertained. It’s the definition of a “popcorn film.”

But that’s all on the surface.

With a different lead actor and a different director, Cowboys & Aliens would be a “forgettable blockbuster,” a big-budget popcorn film that you go into the theaters, plop down in your seat and for two plus hours you enjoy the ride. Two months later you’ve forgotten the film; you might purchase it on DVD or Blu-Ray when it’s marked down at a big box store. In the end, it was a nice, temporary piece of entertainment, but nothing worth remembering.

However, with Daniel Craig as the lead actor and Jon Favreau as the creative force behind the film, a forgettable blockbuster was not an option. These two, along with a cast of tremendously underrated character actors and a return to form of Harrison Ford, have created a film that adheres to the spirit of the classic Western and supercharged it with an adrenaline shot bone-crunching, high-glossed action.

As “The Man with No Name”/Jake Lonergan, Daniel Craig brings a certain gravity to the film. He’s a good actor, probably under-appreciated due to the fact he’s James Bond, a role known for it’s wit and wham-bam-thank-you-mam action chops. Look back on his career, particularly his role as Connor Rooney in the Road to Perdition, and you’ll find he’s a really good actor. As Lonergan, Craig assumes the tried and true cowboy role of the quiet man of action. He has a stone cold intensity amplified by the steel gaze in his eyes — simultaneously channeling the best qualities of classic Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen silent types. And it while it may seem odd to cast a British actor as an Old West cowpoke, Craig was the perfect choice. He brings his patented James Bond muscular brutality and a classically trained sense of subtle drama, character and emotion to the character.

Favreau’s direction and creative choices in the film were in line with “vintage Favreau filmmaking.” This film is very much akin to Iron Man — a big budget comic book film where the director was able to bring out strong human emotion, high drama and character development without ever sacrificing any explosions or moments of fun. In fact, had there been no aliens in this film and it had been a pure Western, it would’ve been excellent. Favreau’s a student of the game, this guy knows film, he knows Westerns and he hit all the notes of what a Western should be. This movie is a tale of redemption, a tale of putting differences aside to fight for a common goal — all the trappings of good Western filmmaking.

One can’t talk about Cowboys & Aliens without mentioning Harrison Ford. This was the perfect film for him. For the first time in a long time, Ford is not the centerpiece of an action film and he’s not playing the altruistic superman anymore. He’s returned to a more sarcastic and cranky anti-hero in the vein of Han Solo and Indiana Jones. He’s back in a role that has depth and he eats it up with gusto. His chemistry with Craig is solid and if there was one complaint about this film it’d be that we don’t see the two interacting enough.

This has been a summer of strong, well-made blockbusters, but when the dust settles, it’s Cowboys & Aliens that gets my vote as one of the best you’ll see at the cineplex this year.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Bill Bodkin is the gray bearded owner, editor-in-chief and co-founder of Pop Break. Most importantly, he is lucky husband, and proud father to a beautiful daughter named Sophie. He can be seen regularly on the site reviewing The Walking Dead, Doctor Who, and is the host of the site's podcast, The BreakCast. He is a graduate of Rutgers University with a degree in Journalism & English. Follow him on Twitter: @BodkinWrites