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Jason Wallis Western, science fiction merge in ‘Cowboys & Aliens’

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Jason Wallis

Posted: Friday, August 5, 2011 7:52 am

See, I told you things were looking up for the summer movie season. This weekend sees the debut of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” which is garnering some very favorable early reviews (I’ll have a look next week), and I hear that “Captain America: First Avenger” is an increasingly rare example of a superhero flick done right. (I was supposed to do a dual review this week to include it, but life intervened. Assume that you have my blessing to see it.)

It even seems like the bad movies haven’t been nearly as atrocious as they were toward the beginning of the season, as evidenced by “Cowboys & Aliens,” the subject of this week’s review. It’s been dragged through the mud by the critics, who are intent on painting it as an epic failure primarily due to some perceived gaps in logic. But it seems to me that the film operates with its own kind of internal logic, with no more genuine plot holes than your average would-be summer blockbuster (i.e. the allegedly intelligent and resourceful heroes ignore prime opportunities to immobilize the bad guys; characters avoid injury or death despite being exposed to electrified water, etc. — nothing too maddening or out of the ordinary). But I guess haters gonna hate.

I always appreciate it when a film makes an effort to show me something I haven’t seen before, and I’m willing to forgive a great many oversights in exchange for that spark of creativity. “Cowboys & Aliens” (based on the comic book by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, but credited to no less than eight screenwriters) offers up an intriguing blend of the Western, adventure and science-fiction genres, and that alone is a novel enough concept to pique my interest. The film has a lot of fun with the madcap mixup and even includes several blink-and-you’ll-miss-them nods to such genre staples as “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “The Searchers,” and I can honestly say that I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Perhaps I’m being too lenient, but the fact that it’s an extremely flawed film almost — almost — takes a backseat to the bold originality of it central conceit.

A shame, then, that the movie ultimately has too many flaws to give it a pass. With eight screenwriters on board the film effectively has no screenplay at all (not surprising, considering director Jon Favreau’s reported willingness to make things up as he goes along), resulting in a choppy narrative that never really finds its flow. At two hours, the film could have benefited from another round of editing to eliminate about 20 to 30 minutes of momentum-killing backstory.

And since the postmodern Western has always been ripe for racial and political subtext, it would have been nice to see the film delve head-first into the “cowboys and Indians” metaphor that it toys with but never properly exploits. (Beyond that, what kind of movie offers up an irrational, racist, murderous, thoroughly villainous cattle baron with a name like Woodrow Dolarhyde, and then blithely morphs him into a secondary hero without even paying lip service to his synecdochic status as the story’s true villain? Sheesh.)

But again, perhaps I’m making too much of a movie whose central goal is to showcase cool battle sequences pitting cowboys vs. aliens. Indeed, the fight scenes are rousing in a classical sense, full of carefully composed wide shots, well-choreographed action and decent (if derivative) special effects. And by casting iconic actors like Daniel Craig (the current and best James Bond, here playing an amnesiac outlaw who uses the alien weapon mysteriously attached to his arm to dodge authorities and revolt against the invading extraterrestrials) and Harrison Ford (Han Solo/Indiana Jones himself, cast here as the aforementioned military colonel turned cattle rancher) as the heroes, the film helps instill in the viewer a sense of old-school spectacle that seems to have been largely lost in contemporary adventure filmmaking.

Craig and Ford are aided by a supporting cast of notable character actors, including Paul Dano as Dolarhyde’s cruel and cowardly son, Sam Rockwell and Clancy Brown as well-intentioned townsfolk, and a virtually unrecognizable David O’Hara as a rival outlaw. They help to keep things at least somewhat interesting during the breaks between the action, and kudos to Favreau and executive producer Steven Spielberg for assembling such an impressive array of quality performers. The story and dialogue may be clunky, but the natural likeability of the cast shines through enough to make “Cowboys & Aliens” a somewhat worthwhile trek to the multiplex.

“Cowboys & Aliens” is rated PG-13 for violence and profanity.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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