by Susan JAMES
When Daniel Craig’s Jake Lonergan wakes up in 1873, barefoot and gunless in the scorching heat of the Arizona desert, a new screen hero is born. Like so many Western heroes before him, Lonergan is a man carved of flint, straddling both sides of the law, on a mission of revenge. The twist in the tale of director Jon Favreau’s riveting new Western is that the bad guys come from another galaxy far, far away.
Based on a graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg which mixes an iconic Western revenge quest with a sci fi adventure, “Cowboys and Aliens” has director John Ford’s fingerprints all over it. Favreau has credited the legendary Ford and spaghetti Western director Sergio Leone as his influences and it shows. Into the mix of cowboys, Indians and aliens, Favreau has introduced Ford’s favorite character, the desert itself. Clouds of dust, driving rain, tortured rock peaks and blazing waves of heat are as much a part of the action as the hardcore heroism of Craig’s Lonergan or the confrontational tenacity of Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde, played by Harrison Ford.
Lonergan is a loner, the former leader of an outlaw gang who abandoned his lawless ways with a sack full of ill-gotten gold to settle down in an out-of-the-way ranch house with Alice, the woman he loves. Unfortunately for him, a spaceship load of brutal aliens happens to fly by and kidnaps the happy couple. Alice is killed aboard the alien ship but Lonergan manages to escape with a bad case of amnesia and an alien bracelet device programmed to destroy anyone or anything that annoys the wearer. Lonergan is frequently annoyed.
Unable to remember anything about his past, the grim-faced former outlaw wanders into a small town ruled by the hard hand of cattle rancher Woodrow Dolarhyde. Dolarhyde is part homage to John Wayne’s Thomas Dunson in “Red River” and part homage to Harrison Ford’s own Indiana Jones. A tough man who loves his weakling son Percy, Dolarhyde joins the anti-alien mission when the extraterrestrial nasties make off with Percy and an assorted group of townspeople.
Like all good Westerns, a posse of unlikely types – the doctor, the preacher, the kid, the dog, the local thugs and a woman with a secret named Ella, played by Olivia Wilde, join forces to track down the alien ship and rescue their kidnapped loved ones.
Into this mix comes a band of Chiricahua Apache whose own family members have been dragged off by the starboys. And like all good Westerns, “Cowboys and Aliens” is at its core a morality play. Outlaws can find redemption; bigots can turn out to be just men at heart, and the only way to overcome insurmountable obstacles is to climb the mountain together.
Favreau has made excellent use of his material, his actors and the stunning New Mexico desert where the film was shot. He has also added touches of humor which leaven the violence that permeates the movie. When Lonergan rides off into the sunset, we’re left hoping together with the townspeople that it won’t be the last time we meet him.
See you at the movies!