You want the summer's action offerings to end with a big bang and I think we all hoped that Cowboys & Aliens would be that bang. With top action stars from multiple generations and the director of Iron Man behind the wheel -- not to mention the fact that its about cowboys fighting aliens -- Cowboys & Aliens seemed like one of the safest bets of the year. This is why you just shouldn't gamble.
I'm not really sure what went wrong in translation from comic book to film screen, but this has got to be one of the least interesting summer action films I've seen in a long while. Let's break it down and see if we can't find out exactly how you make a let down of a summer action film about cowboys battling aliens.
I believe I've found the perfect word for what Cowboys & Aliens does. It moseys. It's not that its slow and boring, it's just uninteresting and dull. Like a cowpoke moseying through town, its hard to care about the film or any of its characters at all while it saunters on to its inevitable and yet somehow convoluted ending. And just like that moseying cowboy, there's nothing to connect you with it and so you really just don't care about it at all.
The plot behind Cowboys & Aliens is almost entirely summed up in the title itself. Cowboys, including Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) and Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), and a small western town are suddenly attacked by aliens. The aliens abduct Dolarhyde's son and have already taken Lonergan's wife so despite not getting along the two form a posse and head out to take down the technologically advanced yet cliche looking aliens. In classic Western form Lonergan is on the wrong side of the law and must be redeemed while, in a more modern twist, Dolarhyde must get over his racism in order to fight alongside the Indians (yea, they're in it too just once again left out from the headlining party).
Also, appearing is Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde) as a strange female who finds Lonergan very interesting. See Lonergan wakes up in the middle of the desert with no memory and an odd alien device on his wrist. Turns out its a laser blaster thing and now he's the only one who can really take out the aliens without shooting away all his bullets. These aliens, by the way, are only attacking earth so they can steal some gold. It's the kind of plot point that with a few air bubbles of dialog could be explained into something interesting in a comic, but in a movie where only one line is spent on it it makes you slap your head and want to pop in a John Wayne film where the only things stealing gold were humans. Then you realize that the comic itself didn't even have gold hunting aliens and you truly start to wonder about what the people making the film were thinking adding such a poor excuse to the movie.
This actually points to the film's greatest problem. It glosses over almost everything and never lets you connect with a single character. Lonergan may seem interesting at first, but the regaining of his memory and his character's development are so mishandled and rushed that you quickly lose interest in anything he does other than shooting. Meanwhile Swenson is supposed to be his new love interest and would definitely have a very dramatic and surprising scene if it didn't feel like it was crammed into the movie out of nowhere. Dolarhyde could have been the most interesting character in the film since he has a bunch of issues to develop including fatherhood and racism, but the movie spends so much time not developing any of its other characters that there's no real time to develop him either. Thus Dolarhyde's major revelations in the film seem to come out of nowhere. It's as if they wrote a synopsis of the comic book as a rough draft, changed a lot of the plot, and then someone mistook the draft for the final thing.
Even if the film did attempt to actually dive deeper into its characters the screenplay as a whole is borderline remedial. Nothing really seems to make much sense and there's not really a single scene that connects thanks to awkward and minimal writing. It doesn't help that almost every actor has decided to mail their performance of this abhorrent screenplay in (by pony express, no less). Craig can't seem to decided what kind of accent he wants to use in the few moments he actually speaks more than two words and Wilde seems to think that looking into the camera with really big eyes is all that needs to be done when acting. Ford might be the worst casting of all as he makes what is supposed to be a hard-edged ex-colonel into what seems to be more of a dithering old prospector. I don't think I've ever seen someone shoot a gun with a limper wrist.
However, this is a summer blockbuster about cowboys fighting aliens so I can forgive almost anything as long as said cowboys fighting said aliens is awesome. Give me three great action sequences and a few solid one liners and I'll happily ride along with you, but Cowboys & Aliens can't even do that. John Favreau, who knocked the action in Iron Man 2 out of the park, seems to have forgotten how to develop an action sequence since then. As if his flat direction throughout the film wasn't enough the final action sequence is all over the place. It's not very clear whats going on from one point to another or how any of the unfolding set pieces are truly connected. As the whole disjointed mess unfolds in front of you, and you realize that not a single good one-liner is going to be uttered by the man who plays James Bond, its clear that Favreau somehow bit off more than he can chew despite this being a much smaller bite than Iron Man.
It seems that whatever can go wrong when a kickass idea is taken from page to screen went wrong with Cowboys & Aliens. From underdeveloped characters, poor performances to piss poor action the movie can never seem to gain your interest. It's a Western that doesn't feel like a Western, a science fiction film without the allure of science fiction and an action movie without good action. It's disappointing.