It was only about 15 years ago that Jon Favreau first arrived on the scene as the hipster indie film festival darling of “Swingers” fame. After sharing the screen with Vince Vaughn in one more flick and being quickly relegated to sidekick roles, Favs decided it was time to step behind the camera. But it wasn’t until the actor/director fully came to terms with his closet geek that he came into his own in Hollywood. Five years ago, newly skinny and holding a canister of film (we guess it would be a disc of data these days, but that just doesn’t sound as romantic) he came to Comic-Con to show off “Iron Man.” Fans were eager, though understandably skeptical. Sure, “Elf” was funny and “Zathura” showed promise, but was this former funny man really the right guy to give Tony Stark proper due on screen?
Favs stepped before the massive Hall H crowd and, after referencing the original plan of a Mandarin villain with a clip from the ‘60s cartoon, unveiled a short montage of footage set to rollicking AC/DC tunes. Robert Downey Jr. wisecracked, stuff blew up and the suit looked picture perfect. Finally, Iron Man flew through the blue skies and fanboys lost their fucking minds. Favs was in and he knew it. “You want to see it again?” he asked rhetorically. The nerds roared. By the time he returned for the 2008 Comic-Con, he was already the belle of the ball. Last year, Favreau (arguably) delivered the goods again with the sequel and rode the good will wave to town in 2011 with the first look at “Cowboys & Aliens,” an adaptation of Scott Mitchell Rosenberg’s 2006 graphic novel. Not only that, it stars Indiana Jones and James Bond. Step aside Kevin Smith, Jon Favreau had officially taken the geek king throne.
So what better place to unveil “Cowboys & Aliens” than the very place where the new, improved Favreau first let his geek flag wave high and proud? In front of a rambunctious crowd at the San Diego Civic Theatre just blocks from a packed Saturday at the convention, Jon Favreau presented the world premiere of “Cowboys & Aliens” in grand fashion for press, studio reps and a few hundred gold ticket-clutching fans. It was the most unlikely scenario, the exclusive elite of Hollywood (Ford, Craig, Favs, Spielberg, you name it) rubbing elbows with the common fanboy. Only at the Con. Now, dog and pony show out of the way, could he deliver the geek goods for the third straight time?
Set in 1873 Arizona, Daniel Craig plays the hero of our story, Jake Lonergan. He awakens in unfamiliar surroundings with a case of amnesia and a mysterious futuristic-looking shackle around his wrist. He walks into town to find that he is actually a notorious wanted criminal being sought by the town’s no-nonsense Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). And just when Dolarhyde is about to get his man, alien spaceships launch an attack on the town, grab a bunch of citizens and force the two grizzled men to team up against a common enemy. Along for the ride are a pretty, mysterious stranger named Ella (Olivia Wilde), Doc the bartender (Sam Rockwell), a young boy (Noah Ringer) and the town preacher (Clancy Brown), to name just a few.
‘Cowboys’ gets off to a terrific start, a hard-boiled western in the stylized spaghetti tradition. Craig channels Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, adding a dose of modern edginess and a dab of Steve McQueen cool. The leading man role suits Craig well and he commands the screen with a relaxed authority. Ford, on the other hand, starts off as little more than the grumpy old curmudgeonly character. Here he is showing his age on screen more than ever before. And the story works harder than it should have to the rest of the way through to illicit some kind of empathy for his character. With Jake’s commanding, mysterious presence, Dolarhyde stands in the the shadow of the new gun in town.
Almost the entire first third of ‘Cowboys’ is a straight up western. There’s the weird mechanical device on Lonergan’s wrist and a few other assorted hints of things to come, but the western aspect is so well established and engrossing, it’s easy to forget there’s still aliens yet to come. Favreau does the tradition proud. Once the green men do arrive, you’re no longer so sure it really needs them. The momentum slows and Favreau and co. spend much of the rest of the film trying to recapture the drive and consistency of the first act. The thrills still come, but never with the same sense of control.
Part of the problem is these aliens just aren’t that original, a common problem of modern science fiction. After Ridley Scott and James Cameron, everything tends to look a bit like an homage. Without revealing too much, these are pretty much your garden variety hostile takeover invaders. They don’t have obvious personalities and no one alien is really distinguishable from any other. They are big, mean and dangerous but sorely lacking in any sort of panache.
While “Iron Man” was most definitely a challenge, “Cowboys & Aliens” is Favreau’s most ambitious project to date. Stark and his alter ego weren’t well known to the mainstream but had a hearty fanbase nonetheless, however Rosenberg’s graphic novel is pretty much unknown to both camps. More than that, it’s an attempt to mesh two very different genres that generally appeal to separate audiences. No less than six credited writers are a testament to the struggle to solve the mash up riddle and deliver any kind of consistently coherent narrative. There’s also way too many characters and, as the story moves along, even more are introduced. The script sets up a host of character payoffs that must play out before the credits roll and, as they approach resolution in tumbling domino fashion during the climax, you get the feeling the script would have benefitted from some trimming of the fat.
‘Cowboys’ is generally entertaining, but it does start to hiccup and feel somewhat long in the tooth by the time it has wrapped a bow around all the loose ends. It functions best as a pure western, but of course that’s only half of what this title promised to deliver. There’s still some of the same action chops Favs delivered in “Iron Man” once the aliens do attack, which keeps the audience engaged enough to prevent the flick from teetering off the rails completely. And Daniel Craig shoulders the additional burden well enough with a smattering of assistance from his sidekick Indy, comic relief from Rockwell and Wilde as, well, eye candy. In the end, however, the enemy of the cowboys isn’t the aliens, but the inconsistent and, at times, sloppy storytelling. Favreau’s crown remains secure for now, but fanboys are a fickle bunch and his next effort better rock. [C+]