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Cowboys & Aliens

The opening town sequence of Cowboys & Aliens is every Western you’ve ever seen, so the things I’m about to tell you are not spoilers.

A small town in the middle of nowhere New Mexico. Though there’s a sheriff, the town is actually kind of run by the local cattle baron (Harrison Ford, looking like I assume he does in Montana these days). A stranger comes into town (Daniel Craig, looking like he might look were he living in Montana).  He has no name, but wears a might purdy bracelet on his wrist. So where’s Q when you need him?

Of course he wants no trouble and finds it in the first five minutes and soon comes face to face with the cattle baron and is ultimately forced to join him to fight a common enemy.

But things are a wee bit different this time around.

Even if it were “just” a Western, Iron Man director Jon Favreau gives the film a good, solid genre look before the you-know-who start making themselves known.  Their initial “appearance” is done so absurdly and wonderfully that you know this will be every bit as entertaining and odd as the title suggests.

Another odd thing about Cowboys & Aliens, if there weren’t enough already, is that it all seems so matter-of-fact.  You simply accept these aliens attacking New Mexico. Instead of bandits, rogue Civil War vets or renegade Apache, they just so happen to be from another world. The mix of science fiction, mysticism, action and machismo works.

Instead of being blown away by the circumstance, you actually become involved in the story and characters and can enjoy the movie on that level. True, you have the usual Goo Factor (why are all aliens slimy?) But the movie is equally driven by plot and character. 

Along for the ride are Sam Rockwell, the dude dreamer who runs the bar, Olivia Wilde as the mysterious woman who must go along, and Paul Dano as the native-American translator, raised by Ford.

Favreau keeps it moving, and visually interesting.  He manages a few fun visual tricks here and there without ever becoming overly clever or indulgent.  Just good old storytelling with a weird cast of characters.

Yes, there are a few relationships that seem a little tossed in that don’t really develop much until the final sequences, but they never drag the film down … just provide the needed break now and then for the viewer. I suspected a few times there was a familial relationship between Ford and the marshal (Keith Carradine) which might have been cut.

The screenplay by the reliable Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman (from the graphic novel originally conceived by Scott Mitchell  Rosenberg) also zips along nicely, never bogging down enough to slow the odd joyride.  Tag on Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard as two of the many producers, and that makes for a reliable brand.

By the way, this movie also offers some very cool variations on lassoing.  I found myself smiling and laughing at the ways trick roping is used here.

Cowboys & Aliens may not be “E.T. Meets Bonanza”, but it’s the rare high-concept movie that actually works.

Ted Kopulos is a long-time Bay Area actor, writer and director who spent several years as movie critic for Greg Kihn's show on KFOX Radio.

Ted Kopulos

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