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'Cowboys & Aliens' surpasses its cheesy title

(Courtesy of Universal Pictures)
(Courtesy of Universal Pictures)

“Cowboys & Aliens” 3.5/5 Pitchforks Rated: PG-13 Released: July 29 Staring: Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford

“Cowboys & Aliens” sounds like a game an eight-year-old would come up with while playing with his action figures.

As a matter fact, wasn’t cowboys battling against space invaders the basis for the opening scene of “Toy Story 3?”

A movie with the words “Cowboys” and “Aliens” in the title really has no right to be good, but in the hands of “Iron Man” director Jon Favreau, “Cowboys & Aliens” manages to be a fun time at the very least.

The film opens with a lone outlaw, played by Daniel Craig, awakening in the middle of the desert with an otherworldly shackle around his wrist. He remembers nothing other than the fact that he’s royally gifted in the art of kicking butt.

After arriving in a nearby town, our hero learns that his name is Jake Lonergan and that he’s wanted for murder. Before the authorities can take Jake away though, alien spaceships fly into town and begin abducting residents.

The surviving townsfolk assemble a posse to track down the aliens and find their loved ones. The standout of the group is crazy old Harrison Ford as Colonel Dolarhyde, hell-bent on rescuing his disappointing son, played by Paul Dano.

Sam Rockwell is the town Doc who is inexperienced in using firearms, but if movie payoffs have taught us anything, he’ll fire a crucial shot when it matters most. There’s also Olivia Wilde as the prettiest young thing the old west has seen since Megan Fox in “Jonah Hex.” Fortunately, Wilde has acting abilities on her side in addition to being luminous.

If there’s a misfire in the otherwise excellent casting, it’s Noah Ringer as a young boy looking for his grandpappy. Ringer was last seen as Aang, I mean Ung, in “The Last Airbender.”

Here Ringer continues to prove that he’s a better whiner than he is an actor. I’m sure that Ringer is a perfectly nice kid in real life. But seeing him on screen just overwhelms me with a hatred that I haven’t felt since Jake Lloyd in “The Phantom Menace.”

I also have to mention that this is probably the most accepting band of characters in the history of movie westerns.

You’d think that some of the white men in this era would have qualms with riding alongside a little boy, a woman, and Native Americans. Yet, even crabby Harrison Ford is cool with it. I guess prejudice just isn’t a factor when people share the common enemy of aliens.

The exposition for “Cowboys & Aliens” is exceptional. The opening scenes perfectly blend the tone of a classic western with the thrills of a modern science fiction adventure.

In the process, the film manages to have an appropriate sense of humor about itself. Thirty minutes into the movie I thought that I was watching one of the most entertaining movies of the summer. It felt like “Stagecoach” meets “War of the Worlds.” As it goes on though, “Cowboys & Aliens” declines from near greatness to just being enjoyable.

The film slowly becomes more about action sequences and special effects than about character and plot. The aliens themselves have a disadvantage of not being nearly as interesting as the human characters. I won’t tell you what the alien’s purpose for invading earth is, but it’s practically laughable.

What we have here is pretty good summer entertainment. The actors all do a strong job for the most part, particularly Craig and Ford.

It’s hard not to be excited when James Bond and Indiana Jones are in the same movie together. The action is well paced and has more wit to it than mindless garbage like “Transformers: Dark of the Moon.” It’s just too bad that “Cowboys & Aliens” couldn’t maintain the same sense of awe that was promised in its first act.

Otherwise I might have been tempted to award the film an additional star.

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