When I was a kid, we still played "Cowboys and Indians." I had a fake pistol, a herd of plastic horses, and was always in for the neighborhood smattering of kids playing Cowboys and Indians, or Cops and Robbers ... which translated into the same thing for us: some of us running, some of us hunting, snipers and shouts of "Bang, you're dead!" There were ambushes in the neighborhood, there were plot twists such as hiding in the long, waist-high grass across the street on the city's landfill, and flinging giant cinders into the air from the city's winter cinder stockpile -- if you got hit by one of them, you were dead, which would have probably been too close to the truth if any of us had actually been hit by one.
"What are we playing?"
"I don't know. I got my gun and my horses."
"You're the Indian, and we're the Cowboys. You better run."
That I could do; it was one of the first social survival skills I learned, and fortunately, I was very good at it. Running fast and far and hiding saved me from many a faux killing, and many a real walloping. As a kid, I would have liked it if I didn't have to run, if I had had the martial skills to turn a painful punching into a personal victory.
Jake Lonergan (Loner -- get it?) wakes up not knowing what the game is, and immediately a bunch of bullies want to beat the snot out of him just for kicks and giggles. But wait -- he does just what I wanted to do as a beat-up little child: he kicks the crap out of them, takes their money, their clothes, and their horse, and rides away, followed by their dog. Come on, how could this story not engage me?
In short order, he finds the dusty, isolated town of Absolution (get it? Absolution, which is when your wrongdoings are forgiven?) and brings his unforgiven past to bear on the Dolarhyde family, cattlemen who rule the area by their profitable trade. (Dollar? Hide? get it?) Jake defies and thrashes some more bullies (oh, mind-candy, yes) and then all hell erupts as aliens attack the town, and Jake is discovered to be the only one who has a defense against the marauders, a strange manacle attached to his left wrist, which can emit a powerful burst of destructive energy.
"Oh yeah? Well, I have a ray-gun, too, besides my pistol! When I shoot you, you can't say you're wounded, you're completely blown up, Jimmy!" Oh, how I would have longed for that as a child.
This is a morality play, fleshed out in imagery from the whole last century and then some. The bad can be redeemed, the good can be saved, and evil's ass will be kicked all over the Arizona landscape.
Will their ass get kicked far enough to declare a win? Only time and Hollywood can tell.
Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford bring deliciously Western Genre stereotypes to this movie; Craig is immovable as Jake, and Ford pivots effortlessly around him as Woodrow (don't ever call him "Colonel") Dolarhyde, with his anger and pride and arrogance and courage reflecting off the facets of the character.
And yes, there will be Indians -- pardon me, Native Americans -- too.
The aliens themselves are as evil as can be portrayed, killing and plotting how to kill better all who stand in their way; in keeping with the morality play theme, the aliens are irredeemably disgusting. Hey, yeah, that was like in my neighborhood, too, when the Dergan boys threw rocks at the little kids walking home from school, just to see them cry ...
Only in Cowboys and Aliens, the neighborhood game and conflict are taken to the Wild West, with guns and horses and arrows and nasty little fighter alien craft, and gold and extra-terrestrials uglier than how I remember Jimmy Dergan ...
Ultimately, none of the characters comes away unmoved, unchanged by this scenario. I think that's what makes it work.
And oh, yeah, all the hats were really, really cool.
"I met Clark Gable at a bus station in Pittsburgh when I was just a kid, did you know that?"
"Yes, Granpa. I know."
"He was smaller than I thought he'd be. Do you know what he said to me?"
"'Get out of my way, kid.'"
"'Get out of my way, kid,' he said to me."
"I know, Granpa. And he was dressed as a woman."
"Funny thing, he was dressed as a woman, but I knew it was him."
"You ought to write a book."
"I really ought to write a book about it."
"I know, Granpa. Sheeze."
I'm getting to the point in my life where I and my friends tell a lot of the same stories that we have told multiple times before. We are good enough friends that we don't mind hearing again how big the babies were when they were born, or how bad the food was in a famous San Francisco restaurant. Okay, maybe we roll our eyes a bit at the beginning of Bud's botched gall bladder operation story, but still, there's enough drama that by the time the doctor says, "What do you mean this is not Mr. Johnson?" we're wincing at the thought.
So why do we do this? Part of it has to do with the inexplicable nature of love -- I would rather be with Bud and his family and his gall bladder than almost anyone else on the planet. The other part of it has to do with the stories themselves. They are stories that define our lives, for better or for worse. We have not cured cancer nor conquered hunger in the world, but we have done things that we find memorable.
Cowboys and Aliens is a movie that you might have wanted to roll your eyes at, but really, who could resist? And you shouldn't resist this one. It is a western/sci-fi movie with Harrison Ford, the cinematic equivalent of comfort food.
In less talented hands, this movie could have really sucked, but Director Jon Favreau has been demonstrating that he has a flair for movie making. With the two successful Ironman movies under his belt, this film seemed like a logical choice.
Yes, this is a silly idea, but the genius of the film is that everybody was able to take it seriously. The writers sure did. They spent the time to flesh out a story that has what I call "internal consistency," that is, once the premise of the story is accepted, everything within the story seems to make sense. There were no aliens in the Old West, but if there were, there would be no reason to believe that they wouldn't have been just like these aliens. That doesn't mean that the writers forgot to have fun with the story. Although this is not a comedy, there are plenty of laughs in the movie.
Along with good writing, this was a well-acted movie. I have to admit that one of the hooks that got me into the theater was the prospect of seeing Harrison Ford again. I've liked all his characters, mostly because they are all Harrison Ford. In this movie Mr. Ford is perfectly cast and does an outstanding job of being Harrison Ford -- the gruff, scowling, wild eyed, sharp-tongued tough guy whose tough exterior simply hides the vulnerable common man inside. There is no other actor in Hollywood who can get angry more entertainingly than Harrison Ford.
Daniel Craig is also well cast as the stoic stranger who has lost his memory. In all the roles I've seen Craig in, he looks a bit like his is not sure where he is and is uncertain of what his next line might be, and that's exactly what's called for in this part. A bit of a pleasant surprise is that he and Harrison Ford really play well off each other. I would go see another "buddy flick" with these two characters, although somehow I don't see that happening. Surrounding Ford and Craig are a number of classic Western movie characters from Doc, to the town sheriff, the plucky (but beautiful) girl, and a band of thieves.
And of course, there are the aliens, without whom this would have just been a pretty good cowboy movie. They also provide the opportunity to use some cool CGI.
Good directing, good writing, good acting and a full dose of undiluted Harrison Ford elevate this movie well above the ordinary. It is not a great movie, but it is a thoroughly enjoyable, fun summer film, and worth the admission price.