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Review: “Cowboys & Aliens”

Actor/director Jon Favreau was once given some career advice about how to select a project. He was told that there are three vital components in any movie: the director, the actors and the script. In the very best movies, all three elements are particularly strong and good movies can get away with a solid two out of three; but if two or more of these vital table-legs are shaky the odds are that your movie is going to stink.

So essentially the advice was this: if you are going to take a chance on either the director, the actors or the script, you had better be darn sure that the other two components are in tip-top shape.

This is a long way of saying that Favreau must have the utmost confidence in his directorial abilities when he assembled an amazing cast to take on the outrageously ridiculous script for “Cowboys & Aliens.” While the result isn’t exactly “Citizen Kane” there is a lot of fun to be had in this sci-fi/western mash-up that plays out as one of the most superbly crafted B-movies you’re going to find this side of Tarantino.

Favreau cemented his blockbuster-cred with the two “Iron Man” movies, so we know the guy knows how to blow stuff up and have a great deal of fun behind the camera. What movie geeks might be most surprised to learn is that Favreau manages the gritty-western half of the movie much more deftly than the rock-em, sock-em sci-fi half.

Of course, a lot of that might have to do with the fact that the cowboys are way more interesting than the aliens.
In fact, the first 20 minutes of the movie plays out like your standard western. Daniel Craig (that’s right, James Bond himself) wakes up in the desert with his memory wiped clean and a strange bracelet attached to his wrist. He moseys into town where he gets in a scrape with the local, powerful rancher’s idiot, bully son (Paul Dano).

Naturally the local, powerful rancher, Harrison Ford (that’s right, Indiana Jones himself), rides into town with his men demanding justice. All that is missing is John Wayne pushing open some saloon doors and punching someone.

Of course, The Duke never had to deal with what comes next as spaceships come, blow the town all to hell and start snatching townsfolk up left and right.  All grudges are set aside as a posse is formed to reclaim the stolen human, and cowboys and aliens square off fulfilling the promise of one of the strangest summer, tent-pole releases in recent memory.

One of the saving graces of the movie is its excellent supporting cast. The “Cowboys & Aliens” bench is deep with the likes of Sam Rockwell, Clancy Brown, Keith Carradine and Walton Goggins, spitting tobacco and convincingly using the word “recon.” Even current “it-girl” Olivia Wilde holds her own as a mysterious, potential love-interest who joins the rescue efforts.

Craig is awesome as usual. The dude just drips with screen presence and helps make this movie a lot more interesting than it has any right to be.

But the most pleasant surprise is Ford, who turns in one of his best performances in a long, long time. Let’s face it, the guy has basically phoned in the last 20 years of his career, but here he gives a nuanced performance, starting off as the movie’s heavy and slowly and (most importantly) believably morphing into a gallant, principled hero.

Ford is so good in fact that I’m willing to put him on the dark-horse-list for Best Supporting Actor, a place the Academy loves to recognize older actors more for their overall careers than for a specific performance. I mean if Jack Palance can win an Oscar for “City Slickers” then why not Harrison Ford in “Cowboys & Aliens.” I’m just saying.

Either way, goofy summer fun doesn’t come much better than this as long as you are willing to shut your brain off at the door.

“Cowboys & Aliens” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of western and sci-fi action and violence, some partial nudity and a brief crude reference.

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