With Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, Clancy Brown; Running Time: 118 minutes; Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of western and sci-fi action and violence, some partial nudity and a brief crude reference); Written by Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman & Damon Lindelof and Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby; Directed by Jon Favreau.
The movie begins like a 1970s western. A man with no name (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the desert. He has a bleeding wound and no boots. He has some sort of metal shackle on his wrist. Three men ride up and decide to take him to town and see if there’s a bounty on his head. Things start to happen.
Welcome to COWBOYS & ALIENS, a Big Summer Movie based on a graphic novel that has a lot going for it beyond the high concept of its title. Director Jon Favreau is obviously a western fan because he gets the details right. The frontier town is ramshackle, and everyone is scared of crossing the son (Paul Dano) of local cattle baron Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), a man who has more local authority than the sheriff (Keith Carradine) or the preacher (Clancy Brown). The arrival of the mysterious man complicates matters further.
This is all B-western material, or would be if the movie didn’t have something else up its sleeve, and it does: aliens, in space ships, that have explosive death rays and that kidnap the locals. When several people are taken, including Dolarhyde’s son and the wife of meek saloonkeeper Doc (Sam Rockwell), a posse heads out after one of the wounded aliens. The man, who may or may not be a desperado named Jake Lonergan, soon joins. They need him… and that mysterious thing on his wrist.
Thus is the premise of a movie that is a hybrid of westerns and science fiction alien invasion movies. It works because the five (!) writers and director Favreau play the two genres straight. This is a pretty good western, with Craig and Ford as two ornery characters who are used to giving orders and who find they need each other. Along the way both will find a bit of personal redemption. There are characters who will have to prove their manhood (or not), as well as a mysterious woman (Olivia Wilde) who insists on joining the posse. Along the way they will meet bandits and Indians, and find that attacks by space aliens leads to some pretty strange alliances.
As a science fiction film, it’s heavily on the action side, particularly in the latter half of the film, but we learn enough about the aliens to know why they are there and that their threat is not only to the town of Absolution but to the whole planet. The action sequences are solid as you would expect from the director of “Iron Man.” Fair warning: it is violent and not everyone makes it to the end of the movie.
Craig and Ford are terrific, making you think that they’d been playing in westerns all their lives instead of James Bond and Indiana Jones movies. Seeing them here you’d have no problem casting either of them in a “straight” western. The supporting cast is solid as well, with Rockwell (“Moon”) amusing as the saloonkeeper learning to fire a gun. Wilde (“Tron: Legacy”) plays the mysterious Ella to good effect, so that when her secrets are revealed they are fully keeping within character.
Although “Cowboys & Aliens” is not a stupid movie in any way, it is not a brain-twister like last summer’s “Inception.” It works as a summer movie because it takes two very different genres and prove they can go together like, well, popcorn and soda.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.