Cowboys and aliens in the same movie should create some together-at-last levels of euphoria, and yet “Cowboys & Aliens” is shockingly dull, lacking in tension (though there were several story arcs teeming with the stuff) and crippled by the Slowly Revealing Repressed Memory story device. The subject matter had the potential to be the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of movies, but instead turned out to be Nuts & Gum.
Set sometime during the gold rush, a man (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the desert with no memory, a strange metal bracelet attached to his wrist, and surprisingly good fighting skills. He finds his way to the town of Absolution (presumably just down the road from Mercy and Redemption) and becomes a folk hero after he embarrasses Percy (Paul Dano), the bully son of local rancher and original gangsta Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). The local sheriff discovers that this new drifter is actually wanted criminal Jake Lonergan, but before he can be carted off to jail, a group of spaceships descend upon the city and abduct nearly half the townspeople. Jake and Woodrow form a reluctant alliance to find and free the abductees, one of whom is Percy, while each hopes that Jake’s memory comes back in enough time to be of use to them.
This movie should have been flying high on nervous energy alone. Not only did Jake emasculate Dolarhyde’s son (and break one of his bones for good measure), he stole money from Dolarhyde himself. Whatever scenario puts them together as a team should have made for “3:10 to Yuma”-type levels of reluctant buddy chemistry, yet from nearly the get-go, the two act like old friends. Even when the local Apache Indian tribe gets involved, the deeply-entrenched prejudices between white man and Native American are resolved and put aside rather quickly. Granted, these are the events that should ultimately take place in a story like this, but it should never happen as quickly, or as cleanly, as it does here, especially in a movie that isn’t exactly what one would call a non-stop thrill ride.
This is, of course, a polite way of saying that “Cowboys & Aliens” is, well, boring. It’s tempting to blame it on the the lack of action sequences, but in truth, that isn’t the problem; it’s what the movie does – or more accurately, doesn’t do – during the quiet moments that do it in. The recurring theme in terms of character development is ‘man up,’ from Sam Rockwell’s milquetoast bartender to the young Indian boy lucky enough to walk away from a staredown with one of the big baddies. It’s a fitting motto for the situation, but not particularly engrossing. The movie even pushes Olivia Wilde on Daniel Craig as a love interest, despite the fact that he just lost the love of his life no more than three days earlier. The tone of the script (written by no less than five people) has a bipolar nature to it, careening between heartfelt and callous in a moment’s notice.
Talking about the acting in “Cowboys & Aliens” is kind of pointless, since it really doesn’t change anything about what works and doesn’t work in the movie itself. Paul Dano, though, deserves a mention for his wholly unconvincing performance as the chicken hawk Percy. The better question is what lured Jon Favreau into making this movie. His filmography isn’t quite on par with Christopher Nolan, but he has shown pretty shrewd instincts when it comes to directorial projects. Even “Zathura” is more enjoyable than this, so why did he agree to make this movie? One wonders if there is a darker, grittier script for “Cowboys & Aliens” on Favreau’s night stand, dog-eared and tear-stained over what might have been.