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Cowboys And Aliens review

Ballet and horror. Gnomes and Shakespeare. Frances McDormand and Megatron.

2011 has already given us an embarrassment of chalk/cheese couplings. Now comes Cowboys & Aliens, saddle-bagged with expectation that this could be /the/ essential mash-up of the year…

Not quite. Fortunately, it easily clears the low bar set for sci-fi western blockbusters by Wild Wild West (Worst, Worst Picture at the 2000 Razzies). It’s professional, respectable, watchable. But something’s missing. A bigger wow factor. A few more kinks and quirks to call its own. A surer sense of who its audience is.

Based on a 2006 graphic novel, C&A started life in more comedic territory, with Robert Downey Jr negotiating to star. But when he embarked on the case of Sherlock 2 instead, a between-Bonds Daniel Craig stepped up; the scripters subsequently filtered out some of the funny, pitching for a straight-shooting, non-winking western.

That tone is set in an opener that finds Craig’s Man With No Memory coming to in the desert, a strange shackle on his wrist. Soon he’s handing out beatings to a bunch of low-life, blood freckling his face.

At the other end of the movie there’s a suicide bombing. In between, scary monsters roar full-throated into the camera. As in his space adventure Zathura (2005), director Jon Favreau has a tendency to intensity that might freak younger viewers (unless they’ve already been desensitised by Rango’s ugly-mug weirdness).

At the same time, this isn’t Unforgiven with UFOs. Take Harrison Ford, assuming the Gene Hackman position as Colonel Dolarhyde, iron-hearted sheriff of Absolution, the town Craig’s stranger stumbles upon. Talked up by the townsfolk as one mean SOB, Ford’s delayed entrance stews anticipation (not least that he’ll do a Han Solo and slam the movie into top gear).

But his bark turns out to be worse than his bite. Within a couple of scenes, Dolarhyde’s showing his softer side, being kind to a hungry urchin. True, it’s no great shocker to see a star of Ford’s stature trace a redemptive arc; if only it felt more hard-won.

In a more complex, thoughtful movie, maybe it would. But if C&A is no kiddie romp or in-joke bonanza, it also lacks the edge, depth and attitude to earn its spurs as properly grown-up entertainment.

But you know, there are aliens in it. And they’re pretty impressive: fish-eyed brutes with extra arms handily hidden in their torsos (Guillermo del Toro offered creature advice). Before we get up close with E.T., there’s the attack from the skies that kicks off the clash of genres. It’s here you can most see the handprint of exec producer Steven Spielberg (on his third visitors-from-space flick this summer, after Super 8 and Transformers 3).

A string of lights approaches on the horizon, conjuring mystery and awe. And then they start zapping the shit out of everything, with Craig giving them some back using his wrist-wear, which turns out to have magical laser-pumping powers. But how did he get it? What do these ‘demons’ want? And what’s the watchful Ella’s (Olivia Wilde) connection to Craig’s foggy past? All questions duly answered, without flooring any jaws.

Still, if it never breaks into a full-blown gallop, it canters along at an even pace, the action/exposition ratio well managed.

Meanwhile, the most creative play on western convention is when horseback riders are lassoed into the air by the invaders, who harvest humans War Of The Worlds-style. As in the climax – where it’s cowboys and Indians versus aliens – there’s a seamless weaving of the synthetic and the organic, CG and gee-gees.

But it’s ultimately a triumph for green hills over green screen: the New Mexico landscapes are so artfully chosen (pat on the back, location scout Becky Brake) and lushly shot (by Black Swan DoP Matthew Libatique) you can smell the sagebrush.

Fleshing out the authenticity, the supporting cast – Paul Dano (Dolarhyde’s hateful, snivelling son Percy), Sam Rockwell (the decent-minded Doc) and Clancy Brown (worldly preacher-man Meacham) - all look right at home on the range.

But what’s a western without a little bromance? Sadly, a little is all we get. Craig makes perfect sense as a Leone ranger, all minimalism and menace, with icy eyes made for extreme close-ups. Ford, as noted, draws the line at true grit, but still conveys leathery authority – and has grumpy fun with the comic opportunities that survived the final draft.
Yet our two alpha males never quite gel.

Craig’s character is a wanted man by the name of Jake Lonergan, we learn; he partners with Dolarhyde after the starfighters strike, but not before he’s humiliated Percy.

The tension should be bubbling like beans over a campfire, but the Craig/Ford dynamic is barely there – no friction, no Butch and Sundance banter, no reluctantly budding man-love. It’s like they’re in separate movies. Doctor Jones and 007: the mash-up within the mash-up that could’ve put this on a higher plain.

As it is, the gold standard for Indy/Bond chemistry safely remains Spielberg’s Last Crusade.

Solid bordering on stolid. It’s Favreau in control again after Avengers advert Iron Man 2 - but given the possibilities, a mild, mild west. More horsing around and another set-piece or two might’ve helped.

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