This film is the product of director John Favreau (Elf, Iron Man 1 & 2) letting his hair down and just doing something ridiculous. The sheer number of clichés in it is actually quite impressive and somehow it works.
Based on the 2006 graphic novel of the same name, the plot goes something like this: As-Yet-Unnamed-Hero (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the middle of nowhere with a device reminiscent of Fallout’s Pip-Boy on his wrist. After a punch-up with some local thugs, he suits up and heads off to the local town where he meets the head of an outlaw gang (Harrison Ford). Just before a gunfight is about to go down, the aliens arrive, abduct a few people and then fly off again. Both having lost someone close to them, Ford and Craig team up to find and take down the aliens. As I mentioned before, they work in some more western clichés and the always-reliable amnesia. By this point, you probably already know if you’re going to love or loathe the film.
This could have gone horribly wrong, but it’s completely earnest in its stupidity. From the opening scene of Craig attempting to chip away at his wrist thingy to the scenes of alien lasso abduction, the film doesn’t try to hammer any message into you or demand too much sympathy from you (except for one scene).
The production values are obviously quite high. The visuals are an interesting mix of traditional Wild West saloons, deserts etc. and futuristic alien architecture. The filmmakers credit Alien and Predator as influences on the look of the aliens, but I think they look more like a mix of the Locust from Gears of War and the aliens from Crysis 2. Actually, come to think of it, the entire movie must’ve been quite heavily inspired by video games. From the visual design to the short first-person sequences to the strange way that blood disappears from Craig’s face in one scene, the entire movie screams ‘I LOVE POP CULTURE!’ Perhaps this reflects the demographic the producers were aiming for.
I’ve got to admit though, the performances are pretty good. Craig is simultaneously vulnerable and badass, while Ford is initially established as a complete jerk, but quickly becomes a much more likeable character. The smaller names do a great job as well, such as Ford’s adopted Apache son. The women have some fairly strong roles too. Instead of being helpless damsels or pieces of meat for the men to look at, they stand up for themselves and fight; hell, one of them is almost the hero of the film.
Cowboys and Aliens is exactly what I expected it to be: stupid, cheesy and awesome, all at once. It’s refreshing to see a B-grade action flick today in a world where every Hollywood blockbuster is trying to have bigger guns than the one before it. Paradoxically, with this film it was smart to be stupid.