I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Summer Movie Flashback: Cowboys & Aliens

tn_cowboysandaliens

2011
2011

COWBOYS AND/OR ALIENS starts out great. Daniel Craig wakes up with an apparent gunshot wound and a weird metal device locked to his wrist. He doesn’t remember who he is or what the fuck happened. He does remember how to fight, though, so when some guys try to rob him he kicks their asses, steals their clothes TERMINATOR style and heads into town. (And all this without talking.)

Other than that metal thing it plays as a straight western for a while. Paul Dano is a crazy asshole who terrorizes the town, shooting his guns off and demeaning innocent people because his dad (Harrison Ford) is the cattle baron and he thinks he can get away with anything. But when he picks out Craig, a random bystander, to flip some shit at, he finds himself crashing nose-first against a wall of badass. This stranger doesn’t know who the little shit is and can’t pretend to be scared of him, so he knocks him on his ass. In the scuffle the kid accidentally shoots a deputy, a crime the sheriff can’t overlook despite who his daddy is, so they both get arrested, to be transferred to federal custody the next day.

Meanwhile Ford’s man Adam Beach goes back to report not only what happened but that this stranger looks like Jake Lonergan, the outlaw who stole the boss’s gold. So we have one of those classic western scenarios, like 3:10 TO YUMA, where a prisoner is being transported and other people are trying to intercept him. Except this is different because one of the interested parties is the titleistical aliens.

All the sudden lights appear in the sky and these UFOs buzz them, everybody in town sees it. Lonergan’s mysterious wrist weapon comes alive (must be weird for a citizen of the Old West to witness a beeping, flashing light) and he shoots down a UFO. That kinda surprised me because doesn’t he wonder if they’re on his side? He has that weapon, aren’t they trying to set him free?

mp_cowboysandaliensWell, it doesn’t occur to him, because it doesn’t occur to the screenplay by Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman (TRANSFORMERSes) & Damon Lindelof (PROMETHEUS) and Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby (CHILDREN OF MEN, IRON MAN) with screen story by Fergus & Ostby and Steve Oedekerk (THUMBTANIC), supposedly based on a graphic novel created by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg and written by Fred Van Lente and Andrew Foley. I think it’s just a coincidence that he was locked up and got set free during one of those alien attacks that happens when too many writers gather in one place.

These cowboys and cowladies don’t really have a frame of reference for aliens or spaceships, ’cause this is more than 20 years before War of the Worlds will be published, and even a little bit longer before COWBOYS & ALIENS executive producer Steven Spielberg would make a movie out of it. So some of them figure it’s demons. The coolest thing these guys do is not like an alien or a demon, more like the cowboys themselves: they shoot cables from their ships that lasso people and jerk them up into the sky. Remember, this was 1873 for the aliens also, so they hadn’t invented tractor beams yet. They can’t suck people up on a beam, they gotta rope ’em and drag ’em, which is much more exciting. I figure the merchandise must get damaged flopping around on the back of the ship like that, but they seem to know what they’re doing.

This is a really strong beginning, and there are other exciting parts (like Lonergan having to jump off a cliff onto one of the ships to rescue his girl, Olivia Wilde from TRON LEGACY). Unfortunately in the middle it kind of lindels off for a while. It turns out the Spaceyankers are taking people just for the usual reason, experiments. (I don’t know about you but I always look for the “no human testing” logo on any space products I import.) Lonergan’s secret backstory is not that exciting, he was just a guy that got abducted and they cut him open but before they could stick a space thermometer up his butt or whatever he stole that wrist thing and escaped but maybe got his head bonked or something and instead of making him think he’s a mafioso like when Fred Flinstone got his head bonked it just made him forget who he was. Also Wilde turns out to be an alien in boring human form, basically like the good alien cop in I COME IN PEACE, trying to stop these Spaceyankers.

The one revelation that people probly thought was dumb but that I personally thought was cool is that the aliens are after gold, just like a fuckin human. They’re Space Prospectors! I like it ’cause it’s a western thing. There really isn’t enough crossover between western tropes and alien invasion tropes going on here, so I appreciate this one. Also it creates the opportunity for a death-by-molten-gold. An O.G.

You might be worried since there’s not a VS. in the title that the cowboys mostly get along with the aliens and ride horses together or something. Don’t panic, they get to verse each other. There’s some cool stuff in there, and the creature effects are good, but it’s not as inspired about this matchup as, say, OUTLANDER with the Vikings & Aliens, or VALLEY OF GWANGI with the Cowboys & Dinosaurs, and there’s not any big surprises. This is actually the rare movie that I think could’ve benefited from the Weinstein treatment. I generally don’t like when people say this about movies, because you can’t just chop a half hour out and assume the story still works. But it at least seems to me like a 90 minute version could be stronger. It’s underwhelming, it doesn’t feel like it earns its 119, and I’m skeptical as to whether the 135 minute extended cut that I chose not to watch added any depth to it. But let me know if you think otherwise.

I mean, maybe in that longer cut they make you care about the characters. In this version they make a sincere attempt, I think, but other than the archetypical quiet stranger at the center none of them are all that compelling. Sam Rockwell’s character is weak enough that I haven’t mentioned him until now. Dano gets some good moments when he’s the terror of the town at the beginning, but he goes limp for most of the rest of it. I’d like to say Harrison Ford has his great Henry Fonda villain performance, but no dice. It’s kind of a halfway performance, he doesn’t really revel in playing the evil asshole like you’d hope he would, so when he turns nice at the end it doesn’t seem like that much of a transformation. I mean, it’s a nice thought. I wish it worked better for me.

The director is Jon Favreau, testing the waters of A-list director status thanks to his two IRON MAN pictures. (The results are inconclusive, leaning negative.) I remember at the time he said in interviews that he wanted to do it because you couldn’t get a straight western made anymore. TRUE GRIT was the year before and was a big hit, but I’ll give him that that was an anamoly. I still wonder if that’s really true, though. If he could get Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford to sign onto a straight ahead western and could keep the budget reasonable I bet he wouldn’t have too much trouble. And if not then hell, he’s a director with some momentum behind him, he’s also an actor and is friends with everybody, he has experience in independent filmmaking and connections in the big budget world. If he really wanted to make a western he could make it happen one way or another. So he should just admit that he liked the idea of cowboys and aliens. And I don’t blame him, it was a good idea. Just didn’t strike gold this time.

get it, gold


VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Sunday, September 22nd, 2013 at 9:15 pm and is filed under Reviews, Science Fiction and Space Shit, Western. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

23 Responses to “Summer Movie Flashback: Cowboys & Aliens”

  1. Favreau talked about in a few episodes of his great IFC show DINNER FOR FIVE, that he’d written a Western right after SWINGERS was a hit. It was about a Jewish gunfighter, and everybody turned it down. He even namedropped THE FRISCO KID (starring Harrison Ford) as something that was a demerit against his film getting made, on top of foreign financiers not interested in the Western as a genre.

    I didn’t take much away from this, and in some subsequent viewings I didn’t find much else either. There is a way to mix these two disparate genres together (you could have made a hell of a PREDATOR sequel in the West), but this certainly wasn’t it.

  2. The movie did pretty much one thing for me. (Two, if you count “boring the shit out of me”.) It made me hate Daniel Craig a little bit less, because it made me realize that while he is completely miscast as Bond (or any other role he ever played), his face and bored acting style fit surprisingly well in a stereotypical Western surrounding! Seriously, give this man a time machine and put him in some filthy italo western next to Klaus Kinski or Horst Frank and he would totally fit in!

    And yeah, unfortunately Ford’s “character arc” doesn’t work at all. Basically it’s an interesting character, but he starts out as one evil motherfucker and then turns into a nice guy because…I don’t know. If i remember right, because his native American slave told him he likes him or something like that. Sheesh, what a wasted opportunity this movie was.

  3. I find it funny that Hollywood loves comic book movies so much that it doesn’t bother them when no one has heard of or read the comic in question (see also R.I.P.D)

    I mean, they’ll make movie base don unknown comics but the COWBOY BEBOP movie never got off the ground?

    anyway, 2011: not a particularly good year for me, some of it was pretty shitty, but I’ve lived through much worse, in fact some of it was pretty good, maybe it’s just too recent for me to really analyze it, I don’t know

    I do know that it was a pretty weak year for movies though

  4. 2011 was also a pretty gloomy year in general, what with the whole “occupy wall street” business and whatnot

  5. I think this movie deserve some kudos for having the balls to go with two grumpy men in the lead roles. Favreau must have know that this wouldn’t do anything for a) those who generally don’t like westerns and b) those who generally don’t like westerns combined with another genre. So he made a movie for those of us who like both.

    “Completely miscast as Bond”, CJ? Really?

  6. why? he’s reasonably suave but also believable as someone that could actually snap your neck in a fight

    yeah, he’s not the wisecracking Bond of yesteryear, but let’s face it, that style of Bond was totally played out (DIE ANOTHER DAY proved that), they were wise to give Bond the “gritty reboot” treatment and Craig was a good choice for that style

  7. I like Damon Lindelof. I enjoy his writing, his themes and that TV show’s ending.

  8. The best part of this movie is seeing Olivia Wilde and Daniel Craig together, because she looks like a china doll made from luminescent space-porcelain, and he looks like a leather shoe that someone put through the laundry.

  9. ” he’s reasonably suave but also believable as someone that could actually snap your neck in a fight”

    I agree about the neck snapping part, but he totally lacks anything that can even be remotely considered as “suave”. In fact, I would have loved to see him and Mads Mikkelsen switch roles in CASINO ROYALE!

  10. Yeah this movie is pretty forgettable. Not as terrible as everyone says, but I probably wouldn’t watch it again even if it came on HBO. The dreaded Orci/Kurtzman/Lindelof writing is actually kept somewhat in check this time (probably because of the 50 other writers) – it’s still pointlessly overcomplicated but nowhere near as bad as the Transformerses or STiD. I did like the feel good ending and the Adam Beach subplot, probably because that’s the only thing I can remember. I honestly can’t even remember if Olivia Wilde was partially naked in this or not, that’s how forgettable this movie is.

    There’s no getting around that the action isn’t very good and the climax is literally aliens running in a straight line down a tunnel while Daniel Craig shoots them. Wow, exciting. The whole ending is actually remarkably similar to the end of The Watch, by the way – I can’t even remember which scene was in what. Oh, I do have to give them bonus points for hiding the aliens in the commercials/trailers. I literally didn’t know what they looked like even watching the movie years later, which rarely happens these days. Too bad they don’t really look that cool and the movie does that typical cheat of having them be indestructible until the end when they’re suddenly not.

  11. What I took away from it, different to some reactions here already, is that Craig isn’t really fit for action movies outside the Bond character. He’s always been more interesting to me when he plays more flawed characters, as opposed to the cardboard cut-out cliche as he was here. Wasn’t really his fault, and it’s not like he was the only one doing that either. But it wasn’t as satisfying on a performance level, as you would expect from someone who was just coming off the IRON MAN movies where there was a lot of that to go around. That said, I’m very interested in the film Jon is doing next which seems to be more in line with something like MADE, more character based and less of a spectacle.

  12. Griff:

    I’m kinda glad the COWBOY BEBOP movie isn’t happening.
    Keanu Reeves as Spike Spiegel is not something I ever want to see. I’ve got no problems with the guy in any other context, but Spike’s supposed to be this lanky 27 year old dude with a thick mop of hair, not somebody who’s pushing 50. Also, the movie was apparently going to take its story-cues from the Red-Eyes drug episode (Asteroid Blues), which doesn’t really offer anything we haven’t seen before, elsewhere. There are so many episodes to pick something from, and they go for one of the more banal ones? I put it down to them not wanting to frighten off the potential audience with too much “strangeness”. But who cares about that? It’s obvious they should simply adapt “Mushroom Samba”!

  13. Man, I was with this movie until about halfway through and then it turned to shit, basically. The cowboy stuff was all good. The quest where different characters from the town came together to hunt the aliens who took their loved ones worked.

    And then SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER Olivia Wilde dies… and things take a turn for the utterly ridiculous.

    I also felt that Harrison Ford’s character losing the not-really-his-son-but-still-a-good-son Adam Beach character to get back his Paul Dano’s asshole son character was not really a fair trade if you ask me.

  14. I think “Lindels Off” needs to become a verb phrase, thank you for that Vern

  15. bullet3: seconded! “lindels off” was classic.

    also, I think it’s pretty amazing that the Chariots of the Gods “theory” about aliens needing gold as fuel for their spaceships and that’s why gold was originally treated as valuable in like, ancient times, man wound up in this movie. I guess this movie was out when that Ancient Aliens show with the orange guy was really popular, maybe there was some overlap there.

  16. It doesn’t help how boring and uninteresting the aliens are, not to mention they’re behaviour doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to the story. I mean, they’re clearly technologically advanced and they have a plan, so why when we meet them are they just uncommunicative, roaring “monsters”? Wouldn’t it have made more sense for there to be several different races, with the higher up commanding aliens being the thinkers, and the ones we see in the movie being an enslaved/genetically bred separate race assigned to the grunt work?

  17. “I mean, they’ll make movie base don unknown comics but the COWBOY BEBOP movie never got off the ground?”
    I expect that the only other Action Space Western of note being SERENITY, which bombed, didn’t help matters.

  18. Hey Griff, name the last movie adapted from an Anime that made money.

    Cowboy BeeBop won’t get off the ground because studios have repeatedly gotten terrible pre-buzz for casting white actors as the leads. Nevermind that the actual marketplace – even and especially in Asia – has proven to favor white actors. Not only is there no real record of success with Anime adaptations, there is a strong opportunity cost with the general concept.

    That said, I’m not exactly disagreeing with the folks who think it’s de facto white supremecy to cast these films with white actors, (or even worse, casting all different ethnicities of ‘Asian’ together at random) because… they’re right. But, until there are Asian faces that can open a movie, the whole thing remains a quagmire.

  19. I wanted to like this movie since it seemed to be taking things pretty seriously instead of half-assing it and coasting on it’s title like a Syfy movie, but by the time that final big action sequence rolled around I was pretty bored. Harrison Ford in particular was pretty terrible. He plays his character with this half-assed grumpiness that swallows up what little character arc there is.

    Comic book to movie adaptations I get because they are such different mediums, but COWBOY BEBOP is already an animated series. It’s fine as is. Those Hollywood vultures should keep their lindels off it.

  20. I saw this movie. It happened. That’s about all I can say about it.

    SPOILERS, I GUESS

    The one thing I do remember is that it was pretty obvious that Olivia Wilde was an alien, because look at her. Humans don’t look like that. Then she gets shot and they throw her body on the fire and I’m like, “Damn, that is some harsh shit to do to your leading lady halfway into a movie. That is way cooler than her being an alien.” Then she turns out to be an alien. I don’t remember cool happening anything after that.

  21. tawdry hepburn – but see, neither COWBOYS & ALIENS or R.I.P.D made money either and COWBOY BEBOP, anime or not, is a hell of a lot more well know with a a bigger fanbase than the properties those other two movies were based on, in fact COWBOY BEBOP is one of the few animes that gets accliam from even those that don’t normally watch anime

    and what also makes COWBOY BEBOP different is that as far as I know all the main characters were supposed to actually be white (except for Ed maybe), so there wouldn’t be any white washing involved, unlike the AKIRA movie, which I’m glad faltered since I take a purist attitude that if the character is supposed to be Asian, make them Asian

    and I was actually surprisingly ok with the idea of Keanu Reeves as Spike, yeah he’s a little old, but I don’t dislike him as an actor, plus BEBOP has an interesting and unique sci fi setting that would be cool to see brought to life (for the uninitiated BEBOP blends the futuristic with the modern day in interesting ways, for example there’ll be a city on Mars that will look like present day Hong Kong or a space station on an asteroid that looks like Tijuana, Mexico, the basic idea is that it’s a spacefaring future where not unlike the present day, the economy sucks)

    and of course, who wouldn’t want to see a live action Faye Valentine? humina humina!

  22. Well, I did some reading on this and Wikipedia’s got a 2013 quote from Shinichiro Watanabe (BEBOP’s creator) where he’s saying that “There is a project underway in America for a live-action version of Cowboy Bebop. But the details are a secret. I’m afraid I can’t talk about that.” So I guess it’s still being developed.

    Anyway, I’m far more interested in the guy’s new show SPACE DANDY, which, judging from the trailers, has the potential to be either very entertaining or very, very annoying. I truly hope it’s the former.

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