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Blu-ray Review: ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ Has Little Fun With High Concept

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CHICAGO – For all of its ambition and integrity, Jon Favreau’s “Cowboys & Aliens” is a dull genre exercise devoid of charm or wit. Whereas “Iron Man” got a great deal of mileage out of Robert Downey Jr.’s deadpan persona, this sci-fi/western hybrid is marred by its two one-note leads: the morose Daniel Craig and the snarly Harrison Ford. Viewers expecting a “Bond meets Indy” lark a la “The Last Crusade” will be sorely disappointed.

By populating his 1873 town with legends like Keith Carradine, Favreau aimed to make a straightforward western that just happened to collide with an alien thriller. The first juxtaposition of sleek spaceships against the primitive setting produces a kinetic thrill, but the novelty wears off quickly. The plot’s high concept is no more revolutionary than the genre hodgepodge in “Super 8,” and at least that film had an endearing coming-of-age tale to make up for its mediocre aliens. 

HollywoodChicago.com Blu-ray Rating: 2.0/5.0
Blu-ray Rating: 2.0/5.0

Craig stars as the standard brainwashed loner who can’t remember anything apart from English…and how to punch someone’s face into a bloody pulp (as he does in the first sequence, which nearly landed the film an R-rating). As it stands, the PG-13 film is jarringly violent, and its workmanlike script (based on Scott Mitchell Rosenberg’s comic and co-written by “Transformers” scribes Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman) has little to offer viewers of any age or gender. Once Craig steps foot into the dusty town of Absolution, aliens attack and start plucking victims off the ground with old-fashioned cables. Yet Craig has a mysterious gizmo on his wrist with the power to blow the invaders out of the sky. It’s not long before the cowboys team up with the neighboring “Indians” to wage war against a shared enemy: terrorists—er, aliens. Ford is joylessly sour as a grizzled old curmudgeon who treats his adoring, saintly Native American counterpart (Adam Beach) like garbage. Olivia Wilde is also thrown into the mix as an impossibly photogenic mystery woman with the key to unearthing Craig’s memories.

Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig star in Jon Favreau’s Cowboys and Aliens.
Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig star in Jon Favreau’s Cowboys and Aliens.
Photo credit: Universal Studios Home Entertainment

The marquee names of Craig and Ford were used as the picture’s primary selling point, but both stars are entirely sapped of their charisma and end up resembling pale shadows of Clint Eastwood and John Wayne. The aliens are just grotesque shooting targets and the characters are stock archetypes with as much depth as the mock sets in “Blazing Saddles.” Only Paul Dano appears to be having a ball as he chews every inch of scenery in the plum role of a bratty bully. Dano merely amps up his corrupt preacher from “There Will Be Blood” a few notches, but his efforts result in the film’s only two big laughs. In a film so lacking in tangible personality, Sam Rockwell is especially engaging as the sensitive everyman who learns how to handle a gun. Since Rockwell also stole scenes in Favreau’s “Iron Man 2,” I think it’s about time for the director to create a vehicle especially for him—ideally one that doesn’t involve explosions.

Cowboys and Aliens was released on Blu-ray and DVD on Dec. 6, 2011.
Cowboys and Aliens was released on Blu-ray and DVD on Dec. 6, 2011.
Photo credit: Universal Studios Home Entertainment

“Cowboys & Aliens” is presented in pristine 1080p High Definition (with a 2.40:1 aspect ratio), accompanied by English, French, Spanish and Descriptive Video service audio tracks, and includes Universal’s interactive viewing option, “Second Screen,” which is only accessible by using a pocketBLU app. The unrated version offers sixteen additional minutes that add little more than extra running time to an overlong blockbuster. Thankfully, the rest of the extras are all surprisingly entertaining. In the feature commentary, Favreau reveals his intention to follow in the tradition of westerns that pay homage to influential classics. He highlights references to John Ford’s signature shot of a character framed in a doorway, while admitting that Craig’s wardrobe was blatantly influenced by Steve McQueen in “Magnificent Seven.”

By avoiding 3D, he had hoped that the film would resemble more of a genre throwback. Since Ford’s only previous western was the comedic “Frisco Kid,” he was eager to take this role seriously, and would often inject his own “cowboy logic” during discussions with the director between takes. In the five-part, 40-minute making-of featurette, Rockwell says that he used Jimmy Stewart’s heartrending performance in Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” as his chief inspiration, while Favreau admits that the aliens were modeled to be a hybrid of sea turtles and “organic Transformers.”
 
All the laughs on the disc are saved for Favreau’s 80 minutes of jovial interviews with Craig, Ford, Wilde, Orci, Kurtzman and co-writer Damon Lindelof, as well as producers Brian Grazer, Ron Howard and Steven Spielberg (whose quality control went out the window ever since he endorsed “Transformers”). Favreau is so affable and exuberant that it’s easy to see how he could sway any celebrity to do any script (Ford admits he had no interest in the project until he met the director). Kurtzman and Orci recount a simultaneously hilarious and infuriating story about how they lied to Spielberg that they hadn’t met prior to their encounter where they got the “Transformers” gig (in actuality, the filmmaker had previously hired them to write a “Goonies” sequel, and ended up hating every draft). In his candid chat with Lindelof, Favreau says that he had no desire to wink through either of the genres that he was intersecting. In that regard, he succeeded, but he unfortunately forgot to have fun with it.

‘Cowboys and Aliens’ is released by Universal Studios Home Entertainment and stars Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, Adam Beach, Keith Carradine and Paul Dano. It was written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby and directed by Jon Favreau. It was released on Dec. 6, 2011. It is rated PG-13.

HollywoodChicago.com staff writer Matt Fagerholm

By MATT FAGERHOLM
Staff Writer
HollywoodChicago.com
matt@hollywoodchicago.com

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