AT THE MOVIES
Cowboys And Aliens
DIRECTED BY: Jon Favreau. STARRING: Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde. CERT: 15A
At a restaurant last week, while on holidays deep in hillbilly country in Georgia, I ordered a pork chop that came with Creole marmalade. Turned out it looked and tasted just like the Old Time Irish marmalade my grandmother used to buy, but since it was Creole, I figured it had to be more exotic and mysterious than that. And so I had to give it a shot.
Now, it may be that pork chops with marmalade is nothing new. Perhaps, unknown to me, my family, and all three of my friends, this has been a popular menu item in the finest kitchens for years. But I’d never encountered it anywhere before. As far as I’m concerned, marmalade is for breakfast, not dinner, and if the good Lord had ever intended for us to put marmalade on chops, he wouldn’t have given us toast.
But why not, I said. You only live once, and I’ll probably never be back this way again. (Actually, I know I’ll never be back in that particular establishment, not after the scary looks I was getting from the locals. I think it was my t-shirt they didn’t like, but I can’t imagine why. It only said, “Paddle faster, I hear banjo music!”)
Anyway, they brought out the chop and the marmalade, with a fine baked potato and green beans. And you know what? It was smashing. A tad sweeter than a chop should be, and it didn’t hit the spot like it might have with a more traditional sauce, say, something with a shot of brandy in it. But the weird combination worked surprisingly well. I might even try it again.
As weird mixes go, a cross between a cowboy film and an alien invasion flick is right up there with the marmalade dinner. But it works quite well as a piece of silly entertainment. There were times when I was longing for something more traditional – wishing that Jon Favreau had simply stuck to the six-guns and made the fine straight forward Western that this could have been – and I won’t be in much a hurry to see it again. But as novelties go, and at the tail end of another miserable blockbuster season, Cowboys And Aliens isn’t the worst thing to land at your cinema this summer.
It gets off to a fine start, when a gunslinger we will come to know as Jake Lonergan (Craig) wakes up in the desert, wearing a strange shiny bracelet that seems a tad futuristic, even for the wild summer fashions of 1873. Our friend is a bit busted up, and hasn’t a clue where he is or how he got there. For that matter, he doesn’t even know who he is.
While he’s figuring that out, he dispatches a few unsavoury types who come along and give him grief. Then he’s off to the dusty old town of Absolution to find answers.
This being the wild west, he finds trouble first, a tangle with a dangerously unhinged clown named Percy (Dano) that leads to even bigger trouble with the young man’s mean old daddy, Woodrow Dolarhyde (Ford) – the cattle baron nobody calls Colonel, ‘less he wants to wind up deader than a nail in the amputated shoe of a dead mule.
In the classic Western, the stage would now be set for the running battle and eventual showdown between the grizzled old villain and the quiet, mysterious hero. There’s a hooker (Wilde) caught in the crossfire, too, an unusually curious lady with the hots for the tall, dark stranger. And hey, there’s even a barman named Doc (Rockwell), and a Sheriff Taggart (Keith Carradine) trying to keep the peace.
But then – well, the skies open and a bunch of nasty-looking aliens descend and start rounding up the townsfolk, chasing them down with lassos like some intergalactic rodeo, then carting them off in their ships for whatever fun and games they have in mind. Oh, and that’s not all – the real reason they’ve travelled gazillions of light years to the tumbleweed town of Absolution, is to steal all the gold they can find.
And with that kind of thing going down, the piddling arguments get put aside while friend and foe band together to take on the monsters – or demons, as they call them, the Book of Revelation being a more ready point of reference in the 1800s than, say, Starship Troopers.
Even the Apaches get in on the act, battling the space invaders while also showing their new gunslinger buddy how to explore space himself, with the help of a few friendly herbs.
It’s very silly stuff, and it could have been great for a laugh, but Favreau and his team of eight writers (you can see where just a few of the difficulties might have originated) play it all straight. Which works in the early stages, when Favreau and cinematographer Matthew Libatique are tipping their hats to Eastwood, Sergio Leone, John Ford, and all the great men of the fictional West. But once the giant bugs turn up, with their lassos and their handy chest cavities – well, a few gags to lighten the tone would have gone down well, but they never arrive.
Craig and Ford give it their best shot, and Rockwell is entertaining as Doc, the barman who never could shoot straight. There are several other perfectly colourful characters but they never get the time to make the impact they might have. The ending is a damp squib, too, the kind of convenient cheat that makes you want to slap someone. But overall there’s just about enough good stuff to make it worthwhile – and best of all, it isn’t in 3D.