RIORI Vol 3, Installment 59: Jon Favreau’s “Cowboys And Aliens” (2011)


Cowboys & Aliens


The Players…

Daniel “James Bond” Craig, Harrison “Han Solo” Ford, Olivia “that hot chick from House” Wilde, Sam “Justin Hammer of SHIELD” Rockwell and Clancy “Mr Krabbs and/or Kurgen” Brown, with Keith Carradine, Paul Dano, Adam Beach, Noah Ringer and Abigail Spencer.


The Story…

An amnesiac gunslinger stumbles into the Wild West town of Absolution, where he’s confronted by two potent adversaries. One is Boss Dolarhyde, a ruthless cattle baron who holds the town in sway, and God help anyone who crosses him or his family.

The other is invading aliens from outer space.

Wait, what?


The Rant…

Me and sci-fi movies have been buddies for decades. Ever since I caught ET back when I was six in the theatre I felt the nip and took its hand. It’s regarded as a classic now, but back then it was a gamble for both Spielberg and an S/F crowd raised on nasty aliens bent on world domination. Now Steve struck a poignant nerve with his prior S/F epic, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. That flick illustrated that Spielberg knew a thing or three about aliens being messengers of benevolence, fostering communication between worlds for the greater good. Only Robert Wise’s classic The Day The Earth Stood Still topped Encounters when it came to addressing such a concept.

Smart stuff.

ET wasn’t much different than Encounters, if not in execution than in tone. Also about communication and understanding ET was a lot less heady than Encounters, and perhaps more accessible to the mainstream. That may explain why back in ’82 ticket takers at the local megaplex had to wear riot gear for fear of getting trampled by overly eager crowds to see if the alien critter got home (to say nothing of Reeses’ Pieces sales at concessions). The crowds in the early 80s dug S/F flicks, a genre once maligned as being puerile at best and mouth-breathing at worst. But thanks to Star Wars: A New Hope, folks came in droves to S/F movies, appetites whetted by not only Hope (or simply Star Wars back then, before Lucas went bonkers), the aforementioned Encounters, the gothic, terrifying Alien, technically the original Superman film (Kal-El was from off-world y’know), Disney’s first PG film, the dark and sinister The Black HoleStar Trek made it to the big screen—for good and for ill. My kingdom for an editor—and heck, even 007 went into space with the loveably goofy Moonraker. Virtually all of these ventures, big and not so big alike, had success with the whole ticket sales thing. Some even got a little critical notice. It looked like for the most part S/F movies were getting their due. The geeky shadow they cast (barring 2001: A Space Odyssey. That one always gets a pass. Do not dispute me) wasn’t so scary as before. Believe it or not, although ET was the culmination of S/F movies as thoughtful and smart, Hollywood (still) wasn’t convinced of it not being a turkey. Unsure if the muddled masses could take in the story of a castaway alien “so ugly it’s cute” stranded in Levittown with his pet/guru human. Word has it the whole wad worked, quite well, and kicked John Carpenter’s sharp remake of The Thing—you know, the one with the vile, shapeshifting, un-cute alien that engulfed its victims and assumed their identities in an arterial spray of gore and puke. Good sh*t—out of the multiplex faster than you could say, “I thought you were dead.”

All of that smart stuff.

And when S/F is thoughtful and smart, we’re best buds. Thick as thieves. Pick my brain and stretch my imagination, please, cute and not cute critters regardless. Although I’m rather choosy about what S/F movie I feel like subjecting myself to, truth be told it’s always been like how RIORI operates: a gamble. There are those films that are required viewing in the genre, unimpeachable without a roll of the dice. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, Forbidden Planet, Star Wars: A New Hope, Planet Of The Apes (sans Marky Mark), The Day The Earth Stood Still (minus Keanu), Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (excluding that wiry chick from Burn Notice/Scent Of A Woman, whichever you saw first), etc. There are scores more we could name, and despite the arched brow the masses often give the genre, it’s been a popular if not profitable one for over a century. A good example? Remember Voyage To The Moon? ‘Course not. You were barely an itch in your granddady’s crotch, but that novelty was technically a sci-fi flick. With pretty cool costumes for the time. 1902 to be exact. Film dork me.

Just being a smart-ass there. Breathe.

However did you notice that a few selections of the new wave of S/F flicks back then didn’t really cut the mustard in the “smart” department? It’s like the whole Highlights For Children “What’s Wrong With This Picture?” feature. One of these things is not like the other. No one could argue that Moonraker was intelligent, nor The Black Hole being a thinly veiled Biblical morality tale featuring obnoxiously cute robots with Disney eyes to boot. And Star Trek‘s leap into the void? Three words: creaky and dull. Hey, you can’t always shoot for the stars and not expect to miss the sun. Your shot may end up in a black hole. Sorry.

Let’s face it. Despite all the boundary breaking from back in ’82 my film buddy—how can I say this without have the ACLU come down on me like a ton of bricks for being “insensitive”—often rides the short bus. For every sharp S/F flick out there dozens—maybe hundreds—of wampa dung lurking in the shadows waiting to malign the genre ever further. Such may lay claim to some whiz-bang, crazy F/X, improbability factor looming large and just can’t wait to be committed to celluloid and be just plain dumb. I suspect a lot of directors who get handed the reigns to an S/F script assume all bets are off.  The wild flying monkeys trapped in my brain will finally have their voices heard! Call Scarlett!

Such bets often are off. Way off. We’re talking Saturn 3 off. Precious few filmmakers understand the golden gift of opportunity that fate and investors have bequeathed to them with an S/F project. Existentialist musings and the need for us all to communicate and better ourselves. Funk dat. It’s time for splatter and little matter. Just gimme that budget/wheelhouse and let’s see what sings beyond the blue horizon. Bring on the dancing blue horses.

Always wanted to wedge “bequeath” into this blog somehow, sometime. Scratch another one off the bucket list. Again, Mister smart-ass. What else did you expect?

Still, I have to wonder in light of too many dopey, misguided S/F movies made at the hands of some dopey, misguided director that if my pet film genre will forever smolder in the Seventh Level. I might have mentioned this prior (in fact I know I have) but it takes a sharp filmmaker to understand S/F ain’t all about aliens, spaceships and trying to convince us that Daryl Hannah can act. Well it’s not just that. Like all films, S/F is about stories, and about the human factor in particular. Standouts like 2001 was existentialism incarnate, not the Monolith doing its thing. Noted otherwise Michael Bay’s The Island was not about existentialism. It was about motorcycle chases, ripping off an even sh*ttier movie and forever chasing the butterfly that is Scarlett Johannson as a competent actress. Trust me, I saw both movies. Guess which one left tissue scarring?

(That smarts.)

In any event, my drunken wingman has had such a sh*t rep for so long it comes as only natural for the rabble to throw up their collective arms and shrug, “What the f*ck. This Lucy flick stars Scarlett what’s-her-tits. It’ll do.” Smart, thoughtful S/F is few and far between, and it only gets press when it’s smart and thoughtful. That and the CGI is used to enhance, not drive.

Yeah, yeah. Bitch, bitch. Welcome to my worldview. You made the hit and stuck around. Who’s the bigger dunce? Who’s so whip-smart here?

I call dibs, because I’m going to contradict myself…now!

Ignoring my preaching, sometimes we indeed do need a dumb, fun, socially non-redeeming S/F film to roll down the pike and goofily explain what a pike exactly is beyond an oversized spear and then get a cream pie to the puss. Dumb stuff, guilty pleasures, crap you’d be rather embarrassed to be caught watching and immediately hitting eject and slamming disc one of the remastered first season of Star Blazers. That kinda thing in the S/F world. Here’s a few trifles of questionable sci-fi, if only mentioned to explain why it took me until 18 to know what a bare breast felt like: Event HorizonLifeforce, Meteor, Outland (both starring Sean Connery! Joys aplenty!), Supernova and The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension. All choice schlock recommended by yours truly. Not the groping part, but yeah. All of them things are pure, dumb S/F fun, essential viewing as any Lucas-fueled phantasmagoria. Have I ever led you wrong before?

Shut up.

But what really constitutes “dumb fun” in S/F? It isn’t just moronic plots, hammy acting and laughable effects. Although those things help, I think the ace in the hole to ridiculous, head-slapping, MST3K-worthy material is a complete and utter lack of plausibility.

Huh? What’s that you say? It’s S/F. All of that truck is implausible. Alien life? That was a weather balloon. Interstellar travel? We can get only as far as the moon. Artificial intelligence? Um, does Siri count?

No, no, no. Chill. Have a cuppa. Shut the f*ck up. What makes good S/F work are a canny handling of the said human factor and (you guessed it) the barest scintilla of plausibility. I’m not saying that what’s depicted in most S/F movies could come to be. Alright, to be fair 2001 is very plausibleand if you consider the Star Trek franchise (old and new) who knows if we won’t be hoppin’ galaxies in 400 years? Those two examples stand out in the pantheon of S/F movies because it lends a feeling of “Huh…” to the audience, as if considering, “Well, what if?” or, “Hey, why not?” For example, it’s no coincidence that Chief Engineer LaForge of the Enterprise-D kept tabs on sh*t using a touchscreen tablet (it’s called a PADD in TNG parlance) and 20 years later in the real world we’re all toting iPads and/or Galaxies. A good example of plausibility in the perhaps not too distant made flesh. Digital. Smart tech. Whatever.

We’re not talking about that here. We be talking, “Oh, come on!” with laughs all around. Utterly unbelievable sci-fi gobbledygook and all its brain-melting glory. It’s vital now and again for any die-hard S/F fan, or regular Joe for that matter. Gotta have the bitter with the sweet to best taste the difference and spit or swallow. There ya go.

Okay. We’ve beaten that horse into glue. Horse sense maybe, or just horse smarts. How smart are horses anyway? Ever see how they behave in westerns? All it takes is a well placed sugarcube and water it won’t drink when you show it to them.

Right.

What does all this gibberish about good ‘n dumb S/F over thoughtful and provocative all mean here anyway? I mean, we get the whole “so bad it’s good” concept, but what am I really yammering about? Is it a retread of the lesson about in order to appreciate the good you gotta have some…I said that already? Well it’s still true. At it’s core, like all genres, S/F is meant to entertain. However unlike other, more mainstream films the genre demands—I mean demands—almost total commitment to suspension of belief with just enough wiggle room to allow “Huh..” When this precious balance is upset in watching S/F movies, the results can be disastrous, to both mind and body. I mean, c’mon, MASH was one of the most misguided S/F movies ever…

What?

Oh. Huh. Well as a S/F epic, that thing sucked on toast. Sure was funny, though. Riotous even. Like this week’s vaunt into the void.

Now draw…


Arizona. The late 1800s.

You wake up in the middle of the desert. No shoes, no ride, no memory. All you have is the shirt on your back, a mouthful of sand and a weird manacle affixed to your wrist. And it doesn’t want to come off. Where were you?

You make your way to a frontier town called Absolution in search of provisions, a bath and who the f*ck you are. The first place you break in to is occupied by a concerned, rifle-weilding preacher named Meacham (Brown). Despite you have no recollection of this man—or anyone for that matter—he sure as sh*t knows who you are. By reputation alone, Meacham marks you as the infamous outlaw and thief Jake Lonergan (Craig) and gives you a warning about shacking up in Absolution. This here was once a proud mining town until the stock wore out. Now it’s Col Dolarhyde’s (Ford) personal playground, and f*ck all that gets in his way. If Meacham’s offering any absolution for your amnesiac circumstance it’s just don’t get mucked up with Dolarhyde family affairs.

Whatever. All you want is a bath and drink, not necessarily in that order. Also figuring how to get this screwy gizmo off your arm. It stings. Almost feels like what they call over the telegraph wires “electrical.” Anyway, booze.

Isn’t always the way? You’re just trying to unwind, have a drink, contemplate your non-circumstances when the local sheriff crashes in the bar—and a weird, sultry lady (Wilde) lurking behind—ready to string you up for being an outlaw you can’t remember being. Absolution is Dolarhyde’s town, as has no recourse for infamous criminals. In spite of Dolarhyde’s guerrilla tactics regarding civic responsibilities, you’re the dunce that gets dragged off to the pokey. It might’ve had something to do with besting the Colonel’s drunken son Percy (Dano) in the town square, but you suspect it has something more to do with your rep. That and being The Outsider.

You quickly discover that while rotting in chains you are nothing of an outsider compared to the marauders Dolarhyde’s been trying to stop for months. Slaughtering his herd, scorching his land and ransacking his gold mining operation the good Colonel and this thugs have been trying to ferret out of Absolution. You’re supposedly a vicious criminal and master thief with an infamous gang at your hand, and the ideal prime suspect in mucking about with Dolarhyde’s affairs. You might be the outsider all right, with a missing history, but at least you came from somewhere.

The real Outsiders are only not from Absolution, they’re not from around these parts at all. Quite literally.

So when the paddy wagon you’re chained in (and with the son of the local heavy that caused all your woes) gets set on fire from a barrage of some sort of controlled lightening shot from an airship no one has even seen the likes of before, you have to ask your amnesiac, troubled past, incarcerated self this:

How the hell did I end up here?…


Before we swoop in and take Cowboys & Aliens by the metaphorical horns (heh), I always feel compelled to point out a literal comic book adapted into a motion picture, usually regarding movies that the average, upstanding citizen did know was a comic book movie (e.g.: Bulletproof Monk, From Hell and, yes Cowboys And Aliens).

Usually these nuggets slip under the radar because of their weird and/or mature content. Sometimes they’re books adapted from lesser known publishers (seems DC and Marvel already have the lion’s share of promotion out there in La-La Land. Batman? Spider-Man? Perhaps you’ve heard of ’em). Sometimes they don’t play as “comic-booky” as the more popular films of their ilk (Kick-Ass anyone?). Sometimes they’re so oblique without a popular cache that you just watch and go, “Whatever. This’ll work.”

Okay, Cowboys does fall under the aegis of all these factoids. I admit I went into watching this with eyes wide shut about the movie’s origins, but I plucked it not so much for it falling under the auspices of The Standard. That, of course, was part of the autopsy, but what really piqued my interest about Cowboys had precious little to do with the dailies I used to scan back in my comic shop monkey days. No.

It was something I caught by accident on the History Channel. Back when they aired actual history, BTW. Those were the days.

The program was called UFO Hunters or something like that. Guess now it was the dry run for the immensely but not understandably popular series Ancient Aliens, the show that tackles the mysteries of the Nazca Lines up against incredible hairstyles. Similar to its progeny, Hunters investigated UFO happenings, then and now, from around the US (and sometimes in other countries) by way of the detective work, forensic science, and/or interviewing eyewitnesses. If none were available—read: dead—scouring the historic record served in a pinch. From the ep I caught, it was a pretty cool show, with none of the foaming histrionics that’s Ancient Aliens’ signature. That and the Greek guy’s impeccable, trapped in a wind tunnel coif.

The scene of the crime for the episode I got sucked into was Aurora, Texas, an nice little patch of nowhere in the Lone Star state just north of who cares and a little west of where are we? The town’s claim to fame (as well as the raison d’etre for the producers to film there, natch) was a report of a saucer crash that occurred so long back it became less of the historical record and more like a beloved urban legend. According to the show, the Aurora incident (nicknamed “Roswell, Texas”) was a bit of both. Stories naturally got scrambled over time, but one thing could be agreed upon by Aurora’s legacy: something fell out of the sky back then.

And back then was in 1897, a full fifty years before the Roswell Incident.

The details were hazy, and shifting to and fro by the locals, but the thing that was certain that an airship of curious design crashed and burned in Aurora and its crews’ remains appeared unlike anything on Earth. That’s right. There were passengers aboard that UFO. Some declared them as “not of this earth” if not “Martian” outright. The bodies were given a proper, Christian burial in the local cemetery of all things, but not before the rough-and-ready media swarmed Aurora for news of the strange airship from out of space and its alien visitors.

That’s the bulk of the tale. A close encounter of the third kind. Talk to Spielberg. But the devil’s in the details. After the crash there were tales of unusual properties regarding the metals used in the construction of the airship, radiation poisoning from improper disposal of the wreckage resulting in maladies in the locals as mundane as advanced arthritis to more serious like birth defects to…other things. No to mention that one of the bodies interred was an “infant.” It is to wonder and have that mousse at the ready.

I think the key thing to consider about the Aurora Incident is that the locals, back in 1897, had next to no concept whatsoever as to how to comprehend a flying machine. This was in the middle of nowhere. No proper airships crossed their clouds resembling anything like a steady schedule. The Wright Bros were to take flight only a mere 6 years after the incident, and even then the general public failed to believe their feat real. With photos no less. Yet the testimonies of Aurora’s denizens fell in line with your contemporary mass UFO sighting, proper burials notwithstanding. In short, no matter how rural, isolated and not-20th Century folks might’ve been, they knew that weird sh*t had rained down from space onto Aurora, and most of it was far from explicable. So call Robert Stack already.

Okay. What the f*ck does this MUFON wet dream have anything to do with “dumb, fun” S/F and this week’s pile? Glad you asked.

The movie Cowboys And Aliens was inspired by a graphic novel inspired by supposedly true events. Read: the Aurora Incident. Big surprise. Author Scott Mitchell Rosenberg once commented that his comic was inspired by what may or may have not happened in Aurora all those decades ago. If you took in what I intimated earlier, Rosenberg considered the ramifications of pre-Industrial age folk encountering technology and essentially a home invasion of the like they simply could not comprehend. I’m paraphrasing here, as well as taking great liberties with Rosenberg’s musings. Still, such a notion could be akin to the events relayed in the original Terminator or how a few of the key players in Seven Samurai got offed by gunfire rather than swordplay (or got offed at all). How does the average Joe and Jane wrap their minds about alien (so to speak) tech interrupting—if not disrupting—their everyday existence? By Rosenberg’s vision, not well. That doesn’t mean the incurring party takes it lying down, of course.

Such is the stuff of fun. Stand offs. Fisticuffs. Get off my land. As for the silly S/F factor? Uh, the movie’s called Cowboys And ALIENS in case you forgot. You did, didn’t you? You and yer Pokemon Go. Focus!

Funny thing though (almost retracting everything I said above), Cowboys was not dumb. It was pretty sharp actually. The concept may have been dumb and silly, but put into the proper perspective the thing had clear eyes.

The nifty thing about Cowboys is that it’s two movies in one. On one hand we got us the classic Western tropes. Mysterious drifter. Scowling bully that holds the hapless denizens of a dying town in his sway. Gunplay. Whiskey. All the essentials. They’re played out in the traditional fashion but lacking any corn that a less canny director than Favreau could not resist. All of Absolution is grim and gritty, worlds—if not light-years—away from some S/F plot with marauding alien invaders mining for REDACTED.

The first act plays out kind of like classic Eastwood “man with no name” Westerns. We have a grim anti-hero, past a mystery, handy with a gun and carrying a sense of purpose. The big difference is for most of the movie is that Jake’s past really is a mystery, and even though later the pieces fall back into place, that mystery drives a great deal of the tension in the tale. At least the existential part of it. If Jake and Co were immediately plunked into extra-terrestrial hijinks there’d be no human drama, and Cowboys would swiftly mosey (if you can do that) into the overwhelming fast and stupid S/F I cautioned about before.

This whole setup surprised me, though. Well, I kinda knew what I was in for with a movie called Cowboys And Aliens. It starred James Bond and Indiana Jones. Jon Favreau—who helmed Iron Man, Zathura and the latest incarnation of The Jungle Book—knew a trick or ten about directing spectacles without processing them into rancid Velveeta. It was based on a graphic novel (heard that’s a safe gamble nowadays for movie fodder). Having human drama paired with only essential Western devices as launchpad into some space swashbuckling would usually lead into cinematic giblet gravy, and the reason I thought that (or at least took pause) was while I read the opening credits. I really do that by the way. I still don’t know what an ACE is.

The screenwriter/producers for Cowboys were the infamous glimmer twins of less-than-subtle S/F and fantasy flicks: Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci. A true mixed blessing. I’ve mentioned in the past for my fondness of Fringe, that warped X-Files meets Twilight Zone hybrid that Mr Spock occasionally popped up in. That show was good, but their other efforts were often received with ambivalence. The Star Trek reboot (which Mr Spock also occasionally popped up in) which was more about pyrotechnics and winking nods to Trekkies than drama. The seventh installment in the Star Wars franchise, The Force Awakens resulted in more questions than answers and even more plot holes. Lots of pyro and winking also. The manic Now You See Me, which went under the lens here at RIORI and I needing an Ativan after its viewing. Their sh*t can be mad entertaining, but as for nuance and grace, their sledgehammer-subtle concoctions can make for a grueling experience on the imagination—info dump upon info dump—and a need to have great patience, pay attention and try to keep up lest you miss something whizzing by at breakneck speed, which you need a crate of Red Bull at the ready because Adderall can get pricey.

Yeah, so these two lovable dunderheads penned Cowboys’ script. I repeat, I took pause at that. Then I crossed my fingers, recalling the best eps of Fringe and just shrugged, deciding to go with this and see where it went. The first thing I noticed after our hero crawls out of the desert is what the movie didn’t have. Not outright anyway. Knowing my Kurtzman-Orci track record I guessed the nasties from the great beyond would descend upon Arizona and start vaporizing cacti by the score before the bloody credits were over. Then Mr Spock would pop in.

Quite the other thing. The opening is gradual, the pacing is steady, there’s room to breathe and time to figure out what is up. We find our bewildered Jake marooned. We see him get into scrapes that suggest his troubled past. We get him to Absolution—a town name as subtle as a fart at a funeral—where he comes to a crossroads and the pieces/mysteries start falling into place. All at the speed of mind. I thank Favreau for this. Like before, the guy has a talent for spectacle, but his directing allows breathing room. That comment about CGI enhancing rather than driving a S/F flick? There ya go.

Consider this the calm before the storm. Right, it being the type of movie it is, we’re gonna get some pyros eventually. What I dug about the action in Cowboys is that it’s almost exclusively Western-style. Barring the weird manacle that blasts lasers, Jake prefers his sidearm to do the talking. In actuality, its both in tandem, but the gunplay is straight out of the old West. That little bit is a good example of how Favreau’s lens works here. There’s a canny fusion of Western and S/F action playing through Cowboys.  The man with no name that everyone knows. The outlaw as the “chosen one” in a greater, world-bending scheme. The humans and the aliens feuding over the same property, and it isn’t plutonium. There’s a lot of stereotypes and tropes with both genres, but they get so bent and twisted Cowboys comes over as fresh and thrilling not eye-rolling and a burlap sack of yawns. As I am accused of saying way too damned often, it ain’t the notes, it’s how they’re played. By melding these two tried and true warhorses—so to speak—we got ourselves a pretty deft, if not unusual S/F caper. With whiskey.

And a crackerjack cast, too. Yeah, yeah. I’ve already dropped the alter-egos here, but separate the actors from their iconic roles and you’re in for a surprise: character acting! Neither Craig nor Ford are known for deviating from their signature styles. They’re not like, say, Paul Giamatti or Forrest Whittaker, whose roles and delivery roll with the tide. No. We know Craig as tough, smug and gruff. We know Ford as tough, funny and gruff. We know Wilde as willowy and rather wooden. Um, as far as Cowboys‘ principal players roll, two out of three ain’t bad.

Craig’s Jake is tough, sure. He’s a gunslinger, first line of the CV. He’s also vulnerable, with no memory of his past and reminded of something he’s supposed to remember strapped to his wrist. Walking contradiction, and also shouldering this feeling of malaise that he deserved whatever has happened to him. This later dissolves into having the holes plugged (it’s almost inevitable), but while we get there we have a protag that is scared, fragile and despite carrying a piece is unlike any prominent role Craig has had before. Okay, maybe Mr X in Layer Cake comes close, but really can you picture Bond riddled with angst? Not for an entire picture. Maybe that’s why Craig looks so gaunt here. Well, that and being stranded in the desert.

Ford was having some fun here as the despotic Col Dolarhyde. Playing the baddie, the heavy, chewing it up. Folks are accustomed to Harry playing rapscallions and rough-and-tumble heroes, often possessing an air of insecurity and/or reluctance. Han didn’t want to get mucked up in the Rebellion. Indy just wanted to go on a cool expedition, not mess with Nazis. President Marshall just wanted Gary Oldman to get off his plane (who wouldn’t?). Virtually all of Ford’s roles have been him reacting to something, not being pro-active. It’s worked. But getting the opportunity to play the bad guy? A vicious cattle baron whose name is quivering fear on all the locals’ lips? Boy howdy does Ford do a fun job, all growly and menacing and ruthless with his enemies. One wonders why Ford didn’t try this schtick before? You can only run away from so many snakes before becoming one. That almost made sense. Quick with a gun, with a threat and an ultimatum, very few actors could pull off this 180 Ford did in such a fun way.

Wilde is kind of creepy here. It suits her enigmatic character, but let’s call a spade a shovel: the girl is eye candy. She’s stiff, she’s not natural, she overreaches. Again, it mostly works here considering her role. It just isn’t particularly enjoyable. Sure, she’s purty, but that’s where all her presence lies. This can be traced all the way back to he salt mine years up against cantankerous Hugh Laurie in House. Come to think of it, didn’t her character only made it onto Greg’s team because of her looks? Foreshadowing? Regardless of whatever, wedged between Craig and Ford, Wilde gets lost in the shuffle.

Besides the action sequences of scary, ravaging aliens and hell bent for leather outlaws Cowboys had oodles of tech points that were not only winning but essential to movie’s mood. Like I said before, we’re dealing with Western tropes here, so if there are going to be stereotypes they better be good, attentive, substantial ones.

There are, breathe easy. What Western would be complete without a convincing setting (at least as far as what we expect to see in a Western)? Right. A backlot. Not here in Cowboys. The landscapes are sweeping and stunning demanding our attention, “Damn, we’re in God’s country.” Big sky and exposed, the whole county screams isolation with only mere handfuls of folks trying to live. Looks like a good place where no one will look for a good place. Great cinematography is all I’m sayin.’

Like most Westerns Cowboys‘ pace is rather slow. It can make it feel edgy. There’s always either been a big blow out in act one, scene one of a Western (e.g.: Silverado, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, etc) or some slow build to a super major blow out (e.g.: The Wild Bunch…’nuff said). Then we get a Western that creeps, builds, takes its time even in light of the urgency. Looks like Kurtzman and Orci took a few pages from the old playbook and put ’em to good work without rendering them in the summer blockbuster blender. Sometimes you can have an even hand and not show it right away without bumming out the audience. Oh, and the sh*t really picks up later so have that with a slice of cake.

There’s lots of nice touches through Cowboys (the surgeon scene is a good example) that make its world-building barely skirt the mindless S/F fun mark. This film isn’t mindless. It is chewing gum for your mind. You dig Western films? Good. You dig S/F films? Also good. You dig movies about alien invaders trying to wipe out the townsfolk of a remote mining village and the quickdraws band together in a Seven Samurai-esque union to take the freaks down? Very good. You want it all stupid or do you want it “stupid?” Keep working that gob in your jaw and all will be well in viewer land.

Cowboys plays with a clever, entertaining, stupid, serious fun. Its a weird movie, but of the best kind. Think Independence Day, but with horses. It’s such a wonky, if not schizo movie that you’ll swear you’re watching two separate films. But they fold over well with each other, and that’s nice. Two flicks for the price of one.

Oh, and it’s dumb, too. Sometimes you gotta put your Fellini away (cuz he never did S/F).


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Cowboys is so freakin’ rife with all the goodies and baddies of both genres you’d have to be some sorry son of a bitch stick in the mud to not turn on, tune in and get yer mind a-chewin.’ Yee-haw.


Stray Observations…

  • “English.”
  • An interesting note: Wilde looks as if she’s wearing minimal makeup. Attention to period detail, or for some…other reason. Hmm.
  • “Give me your hand!” No.
  • The knife scene. Shades of classic Ford. We do miss them.
  • “God don’t care what y’are, son. Only who you are.” Best Hallmark card never written.
  • Of course the hat floats.
  • Ayahuasca. It works every time.
  • Nice shot, Doc. Nice shot.
  • “You’d better hurry.”

Next Installment…

Bob Dylan claims “I’m Not There” in his biopic. To a certain degree he’s right.


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