Who would have thought 10 years ago that Jon Favreau; director of Elf, writer of Swingers and the only person over 12 stone to have appeared in Friends, would become the go-to guy for effects-led summer blockbusters. His well-humored and vivacious take on the Iron Man films would suggest that he would be perfect for a movie entitled Cowboys and Aliens, so it's somewhat of a surprise that the over-all tone of Cowboys is a lot darker than the blithesome title suggests. Western/Sci-Fi mergers are nothing particularly new, the movie's co-star Harrison Ford can testify to that as Star Wars, one of the most successful movies of all time, was essentially George Lucas' attempt to stage a good old-fashioned, rootin' tootin' Western in space, and we've also seen the likes of the final installment of Back to the Future make the cross-over successfully. The title comes from a graphic novel of the same name and thankfully not from a high concept, boardroom pitch, which perhaps hints at a movie with a little more depth than Alien Vs Preditor or Freddie Vs Jason.
The movie opens as Daniel Craig's Jake Lonergan awakes in the desert with a mysterious futuristic device strapped to his wrist and no memory of his past. We soon discover that despite not knowing his name, he has not forgotten how to fight off a gang of bandits with considerable ease and bag himself a horse in the process. He then sets off on a journey to piece together his fragmented memories and finds out that he was not the most savory of characters. Sound familiar? OK, so it's Jason Bourne in a Stetson but luckily for the audience and Paramount's legal department, this is only part of the story. After an attack on the local town by some unidentified flying arsonists, some of the townspeople are whisked off into the night sky, and Lonergan finds himself teaming up with an unlikely motley crew who set off to find the alien invaders and rescue their abducted loved ones.
The pairing of the brooding, enigmatic Craig and Harrison Ford's irritable grouch, Woodrow Dolarhyde, works well, and there is some good support from the likes of Paul Dano and the consistently classy Sam Rockwell. Favreau chooses to explore the more adult side of each genre, think more Alien than Independence Day and more Unforgiven than Wild Wild West and you're on the right track. The influences of Ridley's Scott's movie are clear, most notably the inflections of the horror genre, pushing the 12A certificate as far is it will bend. Favreau told us in London last week that, in his view, the 12A/ PG-13 certificate is the only foreseeable future of blockbuster cinema. With cinemas losing money, the only solid market is teenagers on school holidays, and the more adult entertainment is slowly drifting out of the movie theatres and into television in series like The Wire, Mad Men and The Sopranos (in which Favreau had a guest-starring role). Gone are the days when a summer blockbuster would contain the violence and profanity of Con Air or Bad Boys, but Cowboys and Aliens feels refreshingly un-tampered with, with Eastwood-esque shots of Daniel Craig smoldering over a rolled up cigarette and an aesthetic that focuses on blood and sweat.
Jon Favreau re-unites with Iron Man cinematographer Matthew Libatique, who also recently earned himself an Academy Award nomination for Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan, and the movie looks beautiful. The sweeping shots of the Santa Fe wilderness have an affectionate warmth that was absent from recent Western outings such as the Coen Brothers' True Grit, and the special effects are impressive and unobtrusive. The look of the film is helped by the fact that its vibrancy is not diluted by the use of murky 3D conversion, and it serves as a reminder of how detrimental Hollywood's latest obsession is to the picture quality.
Harrison Ford is no stranger to special effects driven epics, having starred in two of the genre defining science-fiction movies of the 70's and 80's but he told me last week that the acting process has remain largely the same as technological advances have continued to evolve. "For an actor, special effects require only an active imagination, I don't find it much harder to imagine an alien scampering around in front of me than I do to ignore a grip pulling a carriage through the set of a period drama. Now we have the ability to replace a man in an alien suit with a computer generated alien, and what I really like about Jon's creations was that they didn't move like a human." Ford gives a solid performance and delivers all that you would expect when paying the hefty price tag for his services.
The movie is remarkably slow paced and takes its time in fleshing out its characters, but there are still a considerable amount of dispensable goons on the periphery and Oliva Wilde's potentially intriguing love interest is under-used and under-developed. There is also a predictable coming-of-age subplot that is largely disposable and there is not enough of Paul Dano's bratty enfant terrible chewing up the scenery as Harrison's son, Percy (bearing more than a passing resemblance to the character of Ziggy Sobotka in The Wire). Daniel Craig's influences are obvious, he told us that he has spent hours wading through Clint Eastwood's back-catalogue and he captures the intensity of The Man With No Name perfectly, but unfortunately, the movie becomes just a ball of influences, rehashing every element of the genre classics instead of presenting any original ideas.
Spielberg's involvement is clear, especially in the scarier sequences but the movie is never in danger of coming up with anything that we haven't seen this summer, and can't help but feel anticlimactic given the talent involved.