As with seemingly every other tentpole release to hit the multiplex this summer the action thriller Cowboys & Aliens is based on a comic book – albeit a lesser-known one. It’s directed by Jon Favreau whose previous comic-book adaptations Iron Man and Iron Man 2 proved how much better those films can be when they’re grounded in character. Unfortunately his latest effort is grounded not in character but a hook an alt-history scenario best expressed in the language of the average twelve-year-old: “Like wouldn’t it be awesome if like a bunch of 1870s cowboys had to fight a bunch of crazy aliens with exoskeletons and spaceships and super-advanced weapons?”
Like perhaps. The hook was compelling enough to get someone to pony up a reported $160 million to find out and the result is a film in which the western and science-fiction genres don’t so much blend as violently collide. After the wreckage is cleared both emerge worse for wear.
Daniel Craig stars as Jake Lonergan a stranger who awakens in the New Mexico Territory with a case of amnesia a wound in his side and a strange contraption strapped to his wrist. After dispatching a trio of bandits with Bourne-like efficiency he rides to the nearby town of Absolution where he stumbles on what appears to be an elaborate Western Iconography exhibit presented by the local historical preservation society. There’s the well-meaning town Sheriff Taggart (Keith Carradine) struggling to enforce order amidst lawlessness; the greedy rancher Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) who really runs things; his debaucherous cowardly son Percy (Paul Dano); the timid saloonkeeper Doc (Sam Rockwell) who’s going to stand up for himself one of these days; the humble preacher Meacham (Clancy Brown) dispensing homespun spiritual advice; et al.
Jake of course has his own part to play – the fugitive train-robber – as we discover when his face shows up on a wanted poster and a sneering Dolarhyde fingers him for the theft of his gold. The only character who doesn’t quite conform to type is Ella (Olivia Wilde) who as neither a prostitute nor some man’s wife – the traditional female occupations in westerns – immediately arouses suspicion.
Jake is arrested and ordered to stand trial in Federal court but before he can be shipped off a squadron of alien planes appears in the sky besieging Absolution and making off with several of its terrified citizenry. In the course of the melee Jake’s wrist contraption wherever it came from reveals itself to be quite useful in defense against the alien invaders. Thrown by circumstances into an uneasy alliance with Dolarhyde he helps organize a posse to counter the otherworldly threat – and bring back the abductees if possible.
Cowboys & Aliens has many of the ingredients of a solid summer blockbuster but none in sufficient amounts to rate in a summer season crowded with bigger-budget (and better-crafted) spectacle. For a film with five credited screenwriters Cowboys & Aliens’ script is sorely lacking for verve or imagination. And what happened to the Favreau of Iron Man? The playful cheekiness that made those films so much fun is all but absent in this film which takes itself much more seriously than any film called Cowboys & Aliens has a right to. Dude you’ve got men on horses with six-shooters battling laser-powered alien crab people. Lighten up.
Craig certainly looks the part of the western anti-hero – his only rival in the area of rugged handsomeness is Viggo Mortensen – but his character is reduced to little more than an angry glare. And Wilde the poor girl is burdened with loads of clunky exposition. The two show promising glimpses of a romantic spark but their relationship remains woefully underdeveloped. Faring far better is Ford who gets not only the bulk of the film’s choicest lines but also its only touching subplot in which his character’s adopted Indian son played by Adam Beach quietly coaxes the humanity out of the grizzled old man.
In yet another variation on the shopworn road picture in which two mismatched former buddies are forced to cross the country together Soul Men’s uneasy brand of overly broad humor and contrived situations is saved intermittently by some cool musical numbers. But alas it’s not enough. Louis (Samuel L. Jackson) and Floyd (Bernie Mac) are part of a major musical group led by Marcus Hooks (John Legend) who goes solo leaving Floyd and Louis in the lurch. Fast forward 20 years Hooks has died and Louis and Floyd who did not end on good terms and have not spoken since have been coerced into appearing a tribute show for Hooks at New York’s famed Apollo Theatre. Afraid to fly they get in Floyd’s 1971 Cadillac El Dorado accompanied by a talented young woman (Sharon Leal) who may be Floyd’s daughter. Along the way they try to get their act up to speed by appearing in various redneck honky tonks filling the interminable 103-minute running time with a lot of unfunny sexual encounters and unbelievable situations. The late Bernie Mac was a terrific comic talent and is highly wasted in this mishmash in which he is constantly encouraged to mug for laughs. Mac is so much better than the lowbrow material he has to work with here that it’s a shame this film should stand as one of his last (at least there’s Madagascar 2). Faring even worse however is Samuel L. Jackson who is out of his element in a musical comedy and seems to be taking none of this hokum seriously. Thankfully the soulful musical numbers reminiscent of classic ‘60s Sam and Dave R&B are well chosen and capably performed even though neither Mac nor Jackson are known for their singing. Best number in fact is fronted by John Legend making his acting debut as Hooks. As the young eager beaver manager trying to get Floyd and Louis back together Sean Hayes is way too broad. Faring better is newcomer Adam Herschman as Hayes’ mop-topped intern who uses his fanboy infatuation with the pair to nice advantage. And there’s a nice now bittersweet bit near the end with the late Isaac Hayes. Malcolm Lee (Undercover Brother Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins) is a director who tends to go for the slapstick when a little subtlety and believability would be more in order. With a great Sunshine Boys premise and some nifty musical material to pepper the proceedings Lee still manages to drop the ball letting his talented actors down and encouraging them to chew up every scene. The corny silly situations certainly doesn’t help matters with the road trip device feeling more like padding than anything else. Soul Men doesn’t find the right rhythms.