Jon Favreau almost always makes a cameo appearance in his movies, much like Alfred Hitchcock, or, closer home, Subhash Ghai. The fact that he is not seen in his latest offering Cowboys & Aliens is an indication of how seriously Hollywood takes its genre of westerns. Apparently, Favreau thought that his presence would alter the solemn tone of the film, which is a dedication to the good old cowboy movies that included a lot of guns, deserts and ravines, as well as saloons with bat-wing doors, and one-street towns.
A man (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the middle of the desert, wounded and armed with an irremovable metal bracelet, with no memory of how he got there, or who he is. He makes his way into the town of Absolution (a rather apt name), and meets a preacher (Clancy Brown) who stitches him up. He also realises that he is rather good with his fists and guns.
Enter Percy (Paul Dano), a spoilt kid who loves to terrorise the folk of Absolution. The man with no name (a poorly-veiled tribute to Clint Eastwood) beats him up, and everybody sits up and takes notice.
Ella (Olivia Wilde) is interested in him, for her own reasons, but the man takes no notice of her. Sheriff John Taggart (Keith Carradine) identifies the man from a Wanted poster, arrests him, and prepares to transport the errant Percy and Jake Lonergan (the nameless man) to Santa Fe for a trial.
Percy's father, the cattle rancher Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), reaches town in the nick of time to bail his son out, but all plans go awry as the town is suddenly hit by big spotlights from the sky. And so the action begins, with Jake remembering more and more of his past along the way.
Daniel Craig said in a recent interview that he wanted to be a part of this movie, and was thrilled when he was offered the role. With his rugged yet vulnerable looks, he brings the right amount of intensity to the character of a man who has lost everything and needs to do what is right. Watching Craig ride a horse on the prairie is a visual treat, and he is the only actor who can pull off the role of both a rough, weather-beaten cowboy, and a suave, debonair James Bond, with equal self-confidence.
The makers were careful not to cast Harrison Ford in the same mould as Indiana Jones, although they did give him a hat. In the movie, he is an aging cowboy, but still formidable, and a natural leader.
The character of Doc was originally a Mexican, but Sam Rockwell was so eager to play it that the role was re-written for him. Olivia Wilde does not have much to do, but seeing how her character is imperative to the conclusion of the story, she could have done with a few more lines. Her character sketch and graph are the weakest in the movie. Paul Dano makes the most of his three scenes, and steals the show, even from Daniel Craig.
In a rare twist to cowboy movies, the Paleface and the Native Indians come together to fight a common enemy - the aliens who kidnap their people. Some sequences are inspired by the great westerns of the past - look out for the one where Jake jumps off his horse from the top of a cliff, and onto the flying machine in the ravine, much like train robbers jumping on trains in the classics.
The music is classically western, no surprises there, and the first half hour makes you forget that this is not just another cowboy movie.
The script weakens towards the end, when logic is done away with and situations become convenient. The writers are so busy getting the cowboy business right (and they do), that they seem to forget to concentrate on the sci-fi portions. The aliens are no different from various interpretations of extra-terrestrials that we have been exposed to over the years. Even the cinematography does not pay much attention to the alien bit, and action sequences between humans and non-humans are slightly shoddy.
A one-time watch, Cowboys & Aliens, a cross between High Noon and Independence Day, is for Daniel Craig fans (read: western buffs and women), but be prepared to shift impatiently in your seat towards the end.