If you think the title tells it all, you're pretty darn close. Obviously, the intent is to blend the genres. I'll give it an A for effort, cinematography and acting. Story line? Uhhhhhh . . .
My view of this movie is undoubtedly informed [or perhaps deformed] by seeing it so close to HANNA, which I reviewed last week. Indeed, there are some similarities: genre bending, wanton slaughter, a strong heroine, and cosmic-sized plot holes.
Director Jon Favreau crossed HIGH NOON with WAR OF THE WORLDS [you might identify better choices] and got a Chimera. The tropes are there in multitudes: the strong, quite stranger [Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig)] as protagonist, meek townsfolk, the arrogant quasi rich guy [Col. Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford)] who thinks he runs the town, and the kinda, sorta love interest [Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde)] who turns out to be something quite different, and, of course, murderous invaders from outer space.
The typical western formula is cowboys and Indians, cowboys and bandits, cowboys and cattle rustlers, or townfolk vs the evil local war lord. But all of that is sublimated as these disparate groups join forces to take on the aliens. Instead of the usual black hats and white hats, most of these hats are shades of gray.
Jake Lonegren is a serious bad ass - we get that in the very first scene. He then rides into town with a strange wound, no memory, and a bracelet-like device on his left wrist. Who he is and what it is and some other details of his life are revealed mostly in flash-backs as some of his memories slowly leak back.
Dolarhyde is one nasty S O B. Clearly, he runs everything he wants to run, and takes shit from no one - no matter what planet they're from.
When the aliens invade the town, lassoing prisoners in an ironic round up and wreaking all sorts of havoc, we get our first hint that taking on Lonegren and Dolarhyde - or perhaps the human race in general - might have been a big mistake. These two share no love, have a big score to settle, and neither one will flinch. But all that must be set aside.
Dolarhyde leads a posse out of town in pursuit of an injured alien that Lonegren shot down with his whiz-bang bracelet thingey. Jake strikes out on his own, but later joins the posse. On the way, they pick up a troop of bandits and an Indian tribe - new allies against the common enemy. None of this is easy, though, so the plot gets a bit more complicated and convoluted.
But that is not the source of the problems. Like HANNA, C and A leaves too much to the imagination. We do find out why the aliens are here, but that does nothing to explain their actions. They have hyper-sophisticated technology, but seem to be as mindlessly blood-thirsty as Tolkein's orcs. As counterpoint, we do get to understand Ella Swenson's motivation - but how she got here or knew that this was where she needed to be are questions that never even get asked.
There are a couple of things in this movie that defy any kind of rational explanation. The second is the alien ship, which has an open port for ingress and egress of their one
The first is that when the posse - which includes a kid, a woman, and a dog - is overtaken by a violent thunder storm, they take refuge in a river boat - the kind you might have seen plying the Mississippi River in the 1870's loaded with gamblers and whores. Strangely, this boat is upside down, some damn where in the Arizona desert. What the hell?!?
Beyond that, it's not at all clear why the aliens rounded up humans in the first place. If they just want to kill us all - and there's no reason to think otherwise - there's no reason to experiment on us. But the captives do provide a good reason for everyone else to try to get them back, which is the main plot driver.
Another gaffe is the difficulty in killing the aliens. Early on, arrows leave them mostly unharmed and bullets ricochet off their armor-like hides. Feeble earthly weapons just annoy them. Later they can be done-in with a well-placed spear or a club or bullet to the head, as the determined humans mount their counter-attack. It's kinda like Rocky rising bruised and bloodied from the mat to take down his heretofore seemingly invincible opponent. But then, why not? It's worked for decades.
Still, there is a lot of good stuff here. The individual scenes are really well done, the acting is all top-notch, the action is exciting, and the special effects are always good and sometimes spectacular. Some little details I really liked happened on the river boat. The kid gets a knife from Dolarhyde, and the meek Dr./ tavern owner gets a shooting lesson. In each case a nice foreshadowing ensues.
The IMDB comments rip this movie pretty badly. Some critics complain that the story lacks character development. What are these people thinking? It's a shoot-'em-up, not a psycho-drama. And if the title alone doesn't give that away, you really ought to give some thought to what drives your expectations.
Sometimes you just have to accept something for what it is, and it's OK to like something, knowing full well that it's far from perfect. If you expect a good cast, lots of action, the spilling of red and green blood, and a final ride off into the sunset, you won't be disappointed by Cowboys and Aliens.