I’m now mortified that I once defended Jon Favreau’s credibility as a director. More precisely, when Marvel Studios was dithering over whether or not they’d invite him back for the inevitable sequel after he presided over the surprising success of Iron Man (remember when a Avengers-connected movie was actually a risky proposition at the box office?), I groused that their penny-pinching ways, already developing a certain amount of notoriety in Hollywood circles, were causing them to unduly discard a creator who’d earned a chance to be part of the encore. What a sucker I was. Not only was his muddled, clumsy directing a major contributor to the artistic failure of Iron Man 2, but it turns out his very next film offers a compelling argument over ever again giving him a battalion of film cameras and a sizable budget.
Cowboys & Aliens, which also first saw life as a comic book, is a genre mash-up that is absolutely dumbfounding. It’s not that the merging of western and space monster sci-fi is inherently a bad idea. On the contrary, I think it has the makings of wild, spirited fun, the sort of movie that makes the popcorn seem a little chewier, a little more delectable. It’s exactly the kind of goofy thrill ride I can imagine Sam Raimi having the time of his life with. The biggest problem with the film is that Favreau either doesn’t agree with the value of that kind of tone for this project or he has no earthly idea how to achieve it. Instead, Cowboys & Aliens is far more stolid and self-important than any movie that’s, well, combining cowboys and aliens has any right to be.
Favreau and a quintet of credited screenwriters (including the team of Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, who need never be forgiven for writing the first two Transformers movies) spend a tiresome amount of time mounding characters into the film, as if trying to redeem the silliness of the high concept premise through sheer volume of stern-lipped individuals marshaling their way through it. Daniel Craig is a mysterious amnesiac who rolls into town with a inscrutable futuristic weapon welded to his wrist, Harrison Ford is the evil cattle rancher still nursing grudges from the Civil War, Paul Dano is his wild child son, Sam Rockwell is the local doctor who does double duty as a saloon proprietor, Clancy Brown is the town preacher and on and on and on. That doesn’t even include the perennially bland Oliva Wilde as cryptic woman who practically affixes herself to Craig’s cowboy. I recognize that Wilde is very pretty, but she must have a helluva team of managers and publicists to keep getting treated as the next A-list actress despite voluminous evidence to the contrary.
More than anything else, the film is astoundingly, colossally boring. There’s a lot of everything–characters, sets, costumes, action sequences, CGI blazing through the air, slimy space creatures–and yet none of it’s interesting. Hell, a lot of it is barely discernible since Favreau stage’s so much of the film in the low light of evening, as if a McCabe & Mrs. Miller styled verisimilitude is the thing the film most needs. Then again, the fact that he’s potentially trying to obscure the film from the audience may be the only sign that he has any sense at all.
I made it ninety minutes, but even just one half hour more was too much to bear.
Previously in The Unwatchables…
— Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen directed by Michael Bay
— Alice in Wonderland directed by Tim Burton
— Due Date directed by Todd Phillips
— Sucker Punch directed by Zack Snyder