x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Cowboys & Aliens

This attempt at genre-fusion never quite achieves escape velocity.

From left, Harrison Ford as Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde and Daniel Craig as Jake Lonergan in Cowboys & Aliens.
From left, Harrison Ford as Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde and Daniel Craig as Jake Lonergan in Cowboys & Aliens.
Director: Jon Favreau
Starring: Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde
** 

Like bodies lining the floor of a blood-soaked saloon, film history is littered with battered and broken attempts at combining Hollywood's most enduring genre - the Western - with science-fiction. Memories of the half-witted Wild Wild West and the shockingly inept Jonah Hex - both of which saw gunslingers clash with futuristic weaponry - would be enough to make even the bravest cowboy start blubbing into his stetson.

Fresh from reaping more than a billion dollars at the box office and winning critical plaudits with two Iron Man films, the actor-turned director Jon Favreau would seem better placed than most to make this genre mash-up work. The Marvel superhero movies, which starred Robert Downey Jr, both delivered special-effects set pieces aplenty, but truly won over audiences with an irresistible sense of humour. It makes sense, then, that Favreau would want to bring a similarly lighthearted touch to a film titled Cowboys & Aliens, right?

Wrong.

The story begins with Daniel Craig's dishevelled outlaw waking up in the desert with an acute case of amnesia and a thick metal bracelet around one wrist. After stealing a horse, some weapons and cowboy get-up from some badly matched attackers, he wanders into the nearest town. Absolution, he learns, is a failed mining community and its population now lives in the grip of Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), a wealthy and heartless ranch owner. Among them is the beautiful but mysterious Ella (Olivia Wilde), who appears to be the only inhabitant of the town capable of washing more than once a month.

When Dolarhyde's troublemakin' son Percy (Paul Dano) begins to bully and extort money from the townsfolk in broad daylight, Craig's anti-hero teaches him a lesson in humility. The heir of Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name, Craig's Man With No Memory does it not because it is the right thing to do, but simply because he dislikes the good-for-nothin' boy.

When it inevitably arrives, the stand-off between Craig's and Ford's characters is cut short by silver flying machines firing energy weapons. Clearly outmatching the cowboys, the spacemen whisk away whomever they please for whatever purpose. Craig's character believes the aliens hold the key to unlocking his past, and with Dolarhyde's son Percy among the kidnapped, the pair decide to set aside their differences and pursue a common goal.

Favreau never gives the amusing premise the chance it deserves and the film stumbles from one po-faced encounter to the next. While Craig makes a surprisingly convincing cowboy, the frustratingly stoic character belongs in another film altogether. Instead, the nimble balancing of comedy and drama that Downey (who was originally cast as the lead) brought to Iron Man is sorely needed.

Although generally well-played and with individual scenes directed with considerable skill, the underlying preposterousness of the story - dusty gunslingers giving a highly advanced alien race a run for their money - is impossible to overcome. Though certainly not the worst high-tech Western to reach screens, Cowboys & Aliens has become the latest footnote in a terminally troubled subgenre.