Hey, wouldn’t a prequel to Independence Day about an advance alien scout ship landing in the Old West be cool? Surprise! It is.
The 1870s, somewhere in the Old West: a stranger (Daniel Craig) awakens in the wilderness with no memory of who he is, a wound on his side, and an intricate metal cuff locked onto his wrist. After surviving an assault and making his way to the dying mining town of Absolution, his involvement with the son of a rich local cattleman (Harrison Ford) attracts the attention of the local authorities and a mysterious woman (Olivia Wilde). Just as all of these personalities are about to clash, the town is attacked from the sky by an unknown force, and only the stranger’s odd metal cuff appears to have any hope of stopping it.
Director Jon Favreau couldn’t have asked for a better ready-made summer film concept. It didn’t hurt, either, landing players like Daniel Craig (while on hiatus from James Bond), Harrison Ford (who really needed something to make us forget about crystal skulls), and Olivia Wilde (who is apparently the ethereal, go-to actress for pretty much every femme fatale action role these days). The movie employs both stock tropes from Western fare as well as the alien invasion genre, giving us just enough of both to entertain audiences without letting them linger on how absurd most of it is.
Story nitpicks are plentiful. Having human abductees lassoed by the alien raiders is fun, but the explanation on why the aliens need them at all is shaky at best and needlessly draws the kind of unwanted attention that always seems to undo the invaders’ plans. Also looking cool but lacking any real plausibility is a stern wheeler that’s about a thousand miles off course, but it does serve as an interesting setting for a few action and plot bits. Olivia Wilde’s character utterly looks and feels like a pretty plot device, but if you’ve got to have one, you could do far worse that having it played by Ms. Wilde. Finally, what goes up must come down, and anyone who takes notice of this fact would do well to get out from under it rather quickly, wouldn’t you suppose?
Clancy Brown steals every scene he’s in, often next to Sam Rockwell (playing another character unrecognizable from anything else we’ve seen him play before). With beautiful venues, sweeping action sequences, and the kind of story that makes you cheer for humanity to put aside their terrestrial differences and kick some alien butt, the film delivers; Cowboys and Aliens provides exactly what it promises. There were some opportunities to tighten the transitions and maybe trim down the film’s running length, but when have you ever seen a good Western that didn’t take its time? Besides, one shouldn’t underestimate the joy of seeing evil aliens getting the pistol-whipping they deserve.
(a three skull recommendation out of four)