WARNING: Some mild spoilers are included.
Last week, I mentioned that writing a review of the final Harry Potter film was an exercise in futility. People who went to see the other episodes in the theater wouldn’t miss the finale, and people who hadn’t gone to previous installments wouldn’t start with the ending. The same can be said for a movie with a title like Cowboys and Aliens — with the concept fully disclosed in the title, the people who go to see it will almost certainly love it, while others will avoid it. If they do, though, they will miss a fun ride.
Few film genres have such an overhead in clichés as Westerns and science fiction. One might expect a high-concept idea like Cowboys and Aliens to break some of those hidebound storylines, but the film doesn’t have quite that much imagination. The film starts off with a cattle baron who likes to throw his weight around (Harrison Ford) trying to intimidate the local sheriff (Keith Carradine) into releasing his immature, spoiled son who shot a deputy and very unwisely picked a fight with a seriously dangerous fugitive (Daniel Craig) with amnesia. When the aliens show up, the cattle baron — a Civil War veteran — has to team up with the fugitive and the townspeople to find his son and their missing kin and do battle with the aliens. Along the way, they meet up with the fugitive’s gang and a band of Chiricahua, who might kill them before the aliens do.
Will the townspeople and the Native Americans learn to work together to save the planet? Will the cattle baron stop being a bully and become a leader once again? Will he resolve his father-son issues? (Did I mention that Steven Spielberg exec-produced it?) Will the man who doesn’t know how to shoot figure it out just when he’s needed most? Will the boy become a man by using the knife given to him? Will the dog survive? If you don’t know the answers to these questions, welcome to American films, and please turn off your cellphone before the movie starts. And these are just the Western-genre clichés. You’ll never guess why the aliens are abducting people left and right throughout the film. Oh, wait … yeah, you will.
But even with the predictability of the film, it’s still a lot of fun. The cast is excellent, especially Harrison Ford, who gets to do the most acting in the film. Daniel Craig is menacing but sympathetic as the amnesiac robber anti-hero hero, and like Ford, can lighten up a moment from time to time as well. Clancy Brown, Paul Dano, and Sam Rockwell all turn in good performances, although the film wastes Keith Carradine, who is smooth as the sheriff. The young Noah Ringer is especially good as the sheriff’s grandson who has to grow up in a hurry. The pacing is excellent, and while the plot remains predictable, the action sequences will have you on the edge of your seat.
In short, this is a great popcorn flick, with plenty of fun and excitement, if not too many surprises. By the end, you may be saying, “Come back, Shane!”, but you’ll still be glad you showed up in the first place.