COWBOYS & ALIENS is an exhilarating and stunningly successful exercise in the improbable. It trips the light fantastic ambling through idioms from classic westerns while piling on the CGI of nasty creatures from another world driving the action.
In classic western tradition, the hero, Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) is a laconic loner, quick with his fists, faster with his gun, and unable to look the other way when a bully is on the loose. Though Jake doesnt speak for the first 13 minutes or so of the film, his quick dispatch of anyone who gets in his way, or on his nerves, sums up the man better than dialogue could. Awakening alone under a punishing sun with no memory, no shoes, and a strange mechanical bracelet, he wastes little time is finding the nearest town, the effusively named Absolution, and finding help for the strange wounds on his side. Steely-eyed and deceptively quiet, he is nonplussed by either the local cattle baron, Colonel Dolarhyde, or by the strange blinking lights in the sky that turn the failed mining town of Absolution into a battle zone. The strange bracelet may be the weapon with the firepower as it turns out, but its the way Jake walks down the street, staring down his adversary, that signals a single-minded intention that is the real danger to whatever is in his way.
Not that Jake is one-dimensional, nor, for that matter, are most of the other characters. Jake may be the silent type, but Craig makes still waters run deep. Dolarhyde, piquantly pronounced dollar hide is a bad man, but a complicated one who as often or not means well, and is cut to the quick by his total loss of a son (Paul Dano). Sam Rockwell is the glasses-wearing saloonkeeper with a gentle spirit, a quick wit, and keen sense of guilt over his peaceful ways when his beloved wife is carried off by the aliens. Olivia Wilde is the other mysterious stranger in town whose tenacious yet unorthodox interest in Jake may be the key to his amnesia. The writing is as sharp as the characters. Even when bringing in those staples of all proper westerns: outlaws and Native Americans as the story expands from the opening shot of Jake alone in the desert to a tableau as big as the great outdoors as the inevitable posse strikes forth in search of lost friends and hidden enemies, it never feels forced, it never feels contrived, and it darn near makes the familiar tropes seem fresh, even innovative.
Director Jon Favreau has an impeccable instinct for keeping the adrenaline pumping, knowing exactly the right way to mix full-throttle action and subtlety. Yet, this isnt a video game, its a slick mix of character development, shifting alliances, and a keen understanding about the proper way to use teasing glimpses and startling reveals of both the alien threat and the human folk taking them on.
COWBOYS & ALIENS sprinkles in a few cinematic homages, including one to SCHINDLERS LIST that is as surprising as it surprisingly effective. While this is not a profound cinematic experience, the script makes a few jump cuts that are unfortunate, it is one that is a spectacularly fun.