The two irresistible smiles for the past few decades in Hollywood movies have been Julia Roberts‘ face-splitting grin and Harrison Ford’s lop-sided half-smirk. Ford has a Cary Grant quality that’s impossible not to watch. From his Han Solo days, he’s played variations on McGruff, the Crime Dog, at least in delivery. He doesn’t speak his lines so much as growl them. The characters he plays have been so wounded by life that they hide behind a veneer of irascibility and outright menace. Part of the audience’s yearning at a Harrison Ford movie is for the moment when the veneer slips, and it’s always accompanied by that lop-sided smile, like the sun edging from behind clouds. Maybe the world isn’t so bad after all. Maybe love and trust do exist. This is the arc of his performance in Cowboys & Aliens, though here he takes gruffness to an extreme that rivals Eastwood’s performance in Gran Torino.
Eastwood—or at least the “man with no name” he played in the Leone trilogy—also seems to be the model for Daniel Craig’s character. Together, he and Ford grunt and throw snake-eyes at each other for a good part of the movie. You wonder whether the movie would have been stronger if the characters had been less alike. However, as older and younger versions of the iconic western hero, they work well enough for producers to be talking about future pairings. I suggest they be included in the next Smurf movie as Gruffy and Scruffy.
Craig wakes up in the desert with a strange wound, no memory, and a bit of wrist bling that would make Flavor Flav drop his clock. The western element of the movie is laid out with all the paint-by-numbers predictability of an old Roy Rogers movie: evil cattle baron (Ford), out-of-control son (played with weaselly goodness by Paul Dano), mysterious stranger (played with McQueen-like restraint by Craig), and beautiful barmaid (played with alluring mystery by Olivia Wilde). When the aliens make their grand entrance, it’s a relief to leave this dusty, flea-bitten story-frame behind.
Even with the aliens, though, the movie never rises much above familiar types and images. The aliens look like very pissed-off king crabs that have been turned inside-out. The Sleeper (who stayed awake for the whole movie, by the way) noted that movie aliens these days are either of the junk-heap variety (Transformers) or the goopy lizard variety (Super 8). Aren’t we ready for a new breed of alien? At the showing we attended, the movie was preceded by a commercial for an insurance company that showed a rampant alien attacking a neighborhood. When your movie’s alien is no more impressive than the alien in a commercial, your movie’s in trouble. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—Hollywood, try harder.
And by the way, would a species that can cross the universe, etc., have to lasso their victims one-by-one? Couldn’t some slimy type in the alien weapons division have figured out a way to speed up the process? I was also disappointed by the reason the aliens have come to earth, which I’ll leave for you to discover, but it seems like a lot of effort for not very much (though I’m sure Mr. Flav would disagree).
Don’t get me wrong. I liked the movie, but I would have liked it more if it hadn’t been so over-hyped. Like Super 8, it’s a solid b-movie (where “b” stands for “bug hunt”). But the better the cast and the better the special effects and the more the hype, the higher your expectations from such a movie. We got something more from director Favreau’s Iron Man, where the edgy humor made the movie rise above its genre. But Cowboys & Aliens sinks somewhat under the weight of its two genres—western and sci-fi—and never allows Favreau’s genre-bending wit and insights to shine through. With something like nine credited screenwriters, you’d expect more.
Most under-utilized special effect in the movie: the great Walton Goggins.