Cowboys & Aliens
Cowboys & Aliens is probably not the best film of 2011, but it may well be the most entertaining. Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford highlight an excellent cast that appears to be genuinely enjoying itself. Jon Favreau follows up his success with Iron Man and Iron Man 2 by demonstrating he is perfectly comfortable hemming a large production number. Meanwhile, the film's seven writers give us ample time with the supporting cast to make us care about the people in the action sequences without slowing down the pace.
Craig plays Jake Lonergan who wakes up in the desert with a wound in his side, a strange, manacle-sized bracelet on his wrist, and a case of short-term memory loss. The opening is reminiscent of the beginning of Lawrence Kasdan's Silverado, the first of many visual or narrative—but subtle—nods to beloved summer popcorn classics. Jake is immediately set upon by bounty seekers, and the ease with which he dispatches them, as well as how easily he stands up to a drunken bully outside the town saloon, hint that behind the reticent demeanor is a man not to be trifled with. It turns out that Jake is a wanted criminal, and he and the drunk are being shipped to a U.S. Marshal when their coach is besieged first by a posse led by town cattle magnate Woodrow Dolorhyde (Harrison Ford) and immediately after by … well, considering the title, is it a spoiler to say by a close encounter of the nastiest kind?
There are pretty much two ways to play material of this sort—as self-parody, like Snakes on a Plane, or pretty much straight, noting the impossibilities but taking them in relative stride, like Back to the Future. Favreau opts for the latter, and it suits the premise well. When the aliens lasso away several members of the town, the squabbling factions must unite in the face of a superior foe in order to go after their loved ones. There is more than a little nobility in the way each character comes to terms with his or her own vulnerability and elects to continue fighting.
The theme of courage in the face of unimaginable odds, while not profoundly new, would not play well in a film that was cheeky or camp, and it does play well here. More importantly, it allows each character (Ford's Woodrow, especially) at least a small layer of depth. Craig and Ford have both been in big budget films before, and they have enough faith in their ability to not ham it up—to be somewhat reticent and let the audience come to them. It is a joy, especially, to see Ford rejuvenated after his tired walk-through in the last Indiana Jones film. Among the supporting cast, Adam Beach does his usual yeoman's job, and Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, and Keith Carradine all play along. Child actors in such films often grate, but even Noah Ringer shines as a young boy who sees way too much, too early, and yet finds a way to survive.
There's also a town preacher named Meacham (Clancy Brown) who exhorts a barkeeper to stand up to a bully and comforts the afflicted with promises that those who have passed away are "in a better place." He's strictly a stock character and his theology appears to have more in common with Ben Franklin than the Apostle Paul, but at least he's a step up from the assortment of hypocrites or charlatans that inhabit many Hollywood films. Given the film's central thematic thrust—that when survival is at stake, all personal differences must be put aside so that we can work together for the common good—it was enough that the preacher was represented as a positive contributor to the team effort of overcoming the enemy.