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Laramie Movie Scope:
Cowboys & Aliens

Cowboys and Indians and Outlaws versus Aliens

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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August 3, 2011 -- A successful combination of two different genres, “Cowboys & Aliens” delivers the action goods, while lacking in believable emotional depth. You have to give it some credit for at least trying for something beyond mere action, though.

Westerns and science fiction are two ancient movie genres, dating back to the earliest days of film, and they have been combined before (and cowboys and vampires have met before, too) at least as long ago as 1935 in “The Phantom Empire” starring legendary singing cowboy star Gene Autry. This new genre mashup includes a hot alien chick with a gun, a conflicted outlaw right out of a spaghetti western (played by Daniel Craig, the current James Bond star) a powerful rancher (Harrison Ford) with a no-good son and the last free band of Chiricahua Apaches trying to survive against attacks by everybody, including aliens aiming to take over the world in the 1870s.

The movie starts out with action as Jake Lonergan (Craig) wakes up in New Mexico with no memory of who he is or how he got there. On his wrist is a strange-looking bulky bracelet which he cannot remove. Confronted by three outlaws, he quickly defeats them. Equipped with guns, horses and clothing from the outlaws, he rides into a nearby town where he quickly gets into more trouble. He is befriended by an unorthodox gun-toting preacher named Meacham (Clancy Brown of “The Shawshank Redemption”) who binds his wound, telling him he can mend his ways, “I've seen bad men do good things and good men do bad things,” Meacham says. Ain't that the truth?

Jake crosses paths with Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano of “The Extra Man”) the son of a powerful rancher, Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). Jake doesn't like the way Percy is harassing the locals, so he knocks him down, thus getting the attention of both Percy's father, his men and the local sheriff. Just when this conflict comes to a head, the aliens attack and Percy is abducted, along with some townspeople. Jake's mysterious bracelet activates and becomes a weapon, allowing him to shoot down one of the alien airships. Woodrow Dolarhyde sees that Jake's weapon might give him a chance to get his son back from the aliens. A posse is formed and the pursuit of the aliens begins.

This pursuit eventually results in some strange alliances, including a band of outlaws and a band of Chiricahua Apaches, all of whom have a common enemy in the aliens. The alliance is held together mainly by people who have friends and family members abducted by the aliens. One of the more interesting relationships is between Woodrow Dolarhyde and his adopted son, Nat Colorado, who is an American Indian. This relationship is clumsy at best. Nat is Dolarhyde's top hand, and the only man to stick with him in the dangerous pursuit of the aliens, although Dolarhyde doesn't seem to appreciate this. There is a bit of a Gunga Din scene (“By the livin' Gawd that made you, You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din!”) late in the film between Woodrow and Nat. There is a literary tradition that says Rudyard Kipling didn't really mean this line, spoken by a British soldier to a native servant, literally, particularly since he later wrote “White Man's Burden.” I never gave that view much credence, but it certainly seems to apply to the Gunga Din scene in this film.

There is yet another awkward scene in which Woodrow tries to persuade the Apaches that their strategy for attacking the aliens is wrong. Nat also tries to help persuade the Apaches to follow Woodrow's advice with an emotional argument. This is condescending, since the Apaches were acknowledged experts in guerrilla warfare, so why shouldn't they be skeptical about strategic advice from a former Civil War commander like Woodrow, who evidently had a war record that was less than exemplary? Yet another awkward emotional subplot involves Jake and a prostitute. Jake falls in love with the woman and tries to go straight, but the aliens intervene, as they do at several key emotional scenes in the movie. Despite these ham-fisted attempts at emotional depth, the movie moves along well enough and there is plenty of action to keep things interesting.

This is definitely B-movie material, but like many other modern Hollywood projects of this sort, it is given A-list resources, including big movie stars like Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig, and talented actors like Sam Rockwell (“Moon”), who plays Doc. Keith Carradine, who plays the sheriff, is no stranger to Westerns, having played Wild Bill Hickock on the TV show “Deadwood,” and a member of Jesse James' gang in the memorable Western “The Long Riders.” Paul Dano seems miscast as Percy Dolarhyde, particularly when he tries to be threatening. He is more convincing in a meek, or passive-aggressive role. Adam Beach is very good in a difficult role and Ford and Craig both perform like the pros they are. The special effects are top-notch. Talented director John Favreau (“Iron Man”) keeps the pace of the film brisk and you never have to wait long for some action to come along. This film rates a B.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2011 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)