Unforgiven, by Scott Nye
With nearly every major director trying their hand at some variation of the action picture, it’s been kind of fascinating to see what they draw from it. Some, like journeyman James Mangold or neo-neo-realist Paul Greengrass, can slide right in and deliver a very satisfying picture. Others, like Joe Carnahan, sort of flail about, searching for excitement. Most deliver a fairly stock, not-boring-but-not-very-compelling demo reel. But a rare few find a way to make the action film their own. With the first two Iron Man films, Jon Favreau has done the unthinkable – ignore it. The common complaint about those films, from an action perspective, is that the final showdown is anticlimactic, and sure, it is. But the result has been that he’s made the rare superhero film that puts a laser focus on character while still remaining commercially viable. Those films are entertaining, and most of the fun stems from dialogue and performance rather than chases and punches that, frankly, Favreau isn’t up to the task of delivering.
Now, if he’d minded that, Cowboys & Aliens might have been a very, very good film. Because the first half-hour, during which Favreau establishes his western setting and sketches out the archetypes from which he’ll be working, is some of the best stuff I’ve seen all summer. It’s really great. Daniel Craig, delivering a flawless American accent, makes the perfect heir the the Man With No Name lineage, and the supporting cast (which includes no less than Sam Rockwell, Paul Dano, Clancy Brown, and Keith Carradine) are just as fine as their names have long promised. Even Harrison Ford looks like he knows where he is. Olivia Wilde’s another story – playing the totally styrofoam female role in a summer blockbuster is no easy task, and while the film does create a nice little device to make that more palatable, the result is still “she’s pretty, what more do you want?” But on the whole, still all good rip-roaring western stuff.
And then those damn aliens show up.
No, it’s not a simple matter of the whole thing being a big geek-baiting genre mash-up, and I’m just hating on it for that (as much fun as that would be). The collision between cowboys and aliens actually works surprisingly well thematically and aesthetically. It’s just that the movie, as a piece of drama (and I’m using the word in the Shakespearean tradition, I know it’s not trying to be Citizen Kane, you guys), really starts to fall apart the more often aliens are involved. I suppose at this point I should expect co-writers/studio head favorites Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (who are the reason Tina Fey can make the joke “Transformers 5 – Written by NO ONE”) to deliver a script that has dramatic beats built only on contrivances, but after a while, I started to wonder if Daniel Craig was summoning those damn aliens every time he got into a tight spot.
Meanwhile, Favreau still can’t craft an exciting action scene, and he’s done himself few favors conceptually. He creates some great beats – and one in particular, near the end of the film, is the perfect example of using action to tell a story – but as the picture goes on it becomes more and more about people and aliens running towards each other, with the victor being whoever the film wants it to be. Human weapons are totally ineffective against the aliens until it’s about time for the picture to be over, and then suddenly they are, and vice versa for the aliens, who sometimes can’t see in daylight, but other times are pretty effective killing machines at all hours. You know, whatever’s convenient. And was someone getting a bonus for every time an alien jumped up in the middle of the screen and screamed?
The point is, the longer it goes on, the more generic it becomes. Cowboys & Aliens might sound like a predictable concept for an Idiocracy world, but on the other hand, it’s not like they’ve made this movie before in really any form (that I know of…). There’s so much that you can do with those two words thrown together, some of which gets realized, but most is left on the great ground of unrealized potential. Though it starts off strongly and has moderately thrilling moments interspersed, it never pays off its initial titular and qualitative promise.