Review: “Cowboy & Aliens” is a Gunfight at the More-Than-O.K. Corral

When it comes to summer movies, the cavalry has finally arrived.

True, so far I’ve loved a few summer flicks like Harry Potter, X-Men: First Class, and Super 8, and I thought Captain America was fine. But there have also been way too many stinkers.

Fortunately, Cowboys & Aliens, a great popcorn movie based on a clever premise, makes up for some of the dreck. Basically, it delivers everything you want in a summer movie (and frankly, I was thrilled that there’s finally a movie that isn’t in 3D, because those plastic glasses are really starting to give me a headache!).

Aliens are invading earth, but it’s not happening in the present. It’s happening 150 years ago, in the time of cowboys in the wild west. A man (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the desert with no memory of his past or identity, just a futuristic bracelet around his wrist. Soon it becomes clear to him that “demons” have invaded the planet, and he just might hold the key to defeating them. Meanwhile, a cranky old cattle baron (Harrison Ford) also joins in the fray.

How do cowboys (and this movie) deal with the fact that these aliens are far more technically advanced? It’s partly, we’re told, that aliens don’t think much of these humans, so their defenses are way down. This seems plausible, and there’s also the fact that the aliens can’t see well during the day. But the movie does rely on one obvious contrivance in the form of that futuristic armband.

The humans also learn that they have to work together to defeat their common enemy. That means that the traditional enemies in a movie Western, cowboys and Indians, have to join together. It’s the perfect message for multicultural America in 2011, and an ironic one coming from this most traditional of movie genres.

Indeed, despite its multicultural message, it’s worth noting that this is still very much a western. It’s definitely not the quip-y comedy romp, like The Wild West or Men in Black, that audiences might be expecting based on the humorous title.

It has the look, feel, and early pacing of a classic Western, and all the stock characters are here right down to the lead, who soon learns his name is Jake Lonergan, but who is still the classic “lone gunman” in every way: the laconic cowboy with a tortured, mysterious past. He just happens to be fighting not against outlaws or the corrupt sheriff, but, um, aliens.

Anyway, the whole thing, which is based on a 2006 graphic novel and directed by Iron Man‘s Jon Favreau, is a clever and unique blending of movie genres.

My quibbles? Truthfully, I thought Craig was, surprisingly, something of a dud. Maybe he took the “lone gunman” thing too far, but I saw little of the explosive charisma he has in the James Bond movies. Likewise, he doesn’t have much rapport with Harrison Ford, who is nonetheless terrific in what’s basically a supporting role as the irascible old man.

It also annoyed me that the “female love interest” is a newcomer who looks like a skinny supermodel and is at least 15 years younger than Craig. Really? We’re still doing this in 2011?

No matter. Cowboys & Aliens is a winner.

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