A man (Daniel Craig) awakens in a field unsure of who he is or where he is. His clothes are tattered and the most notable thing about him (other than that he’s Daniel Craig, and is quite the looker even when he’s all covered in dirt) is that he has a metal thing clamped around his wrist. He is clearly a man of the Old West and the thing is clearly a device of a more advanced technology and despite the amnesia even the man knows something’s up. When an encounter with some riders starts to go sour, we learn that the man is also one heck of a fighter who takes down three men and picks up a horse, a gun and dog in the process. He rides in direction of town and there we learn that he may be wanted — the sheriff (Keith Carradine) identifies him as Jake Lonergan, a robber and possible murderer. He arrests Jake and holds him for the federal marshal to take to Santa Fe. Also headed to Santa Fe is Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano). He’s the wildcard, wastrel son of Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), the gruff cattle rancher in the area. Because Woodrow Dolarhyde is the small town’s main economic engine, Percy takes the liberty of acting like a jerk. When Jake confronted Percy while he was bullying townsfolk, Percy carelessly shot his gun and hit a deputy. So now Percy is joining Jake for a wagon ride to federal court.
Except that just as the wagon is setting off, Woodrow and his men, including Nat Colorado (Adam Beach), show up to get Percy. In any other western, this would become a guns-drawn stand-off but in this western the showdown is interrupted by some approaching lights. These lights, moving in a way totally unlike the torches Woodrow and his men were carrying, have everyone captivated until, wham, the shooting starts and the town is under attack. People flee, some shoot back and some are lifted straight into the air when lasso-type strings shoot out from the ships that are strafing the town. The thing on Jake’s wrist lights up and using those bad-ass skills displayed earlier, Jake escapes the wagon and manages to shoot one of the ships down. The wounded occupant is spotted leaving town and Woodrow rounds up some men to head out — at first light, of course, like in good westerns everywhere — to go and find it. Woodrow’s son Percy was taken by the ships, as was the sheriff (whose grandson Emmett, played by Noah Ringer, joins the hunt), the Doc’s (Sam Rockwell) wife Maria (Ana de la Reguera) and other townsfolk. Also joining the posse are a preacher-type named Meacham (Clancy Brown) and Ella Swensen (Olivia Wilde), a mysterious woman who seems to know something about Jake. Ella seems to know a lot of things, like more about the ships and their inhabitants than she lets on and how to keep her hair silky and smooth even while riding around the New Mexico desert.
Shotguns and aliens, horses and spaceships — how nicely peanut-butter-in-my-chocolate these elements are together. Both genres bring to mind classic B movies — which is arguably what this movie also is — and both require a certain amount of suspension of disbelief (nobody’s hair looks that good for that long, for example). Ridiculous swagger and thrilling derring-do (yes, of course somebody jumps off a galloping horse onto a spaceship) fit well with both genres. There’s a kid, a dog, a woman and some intra-human fighting — all required elements in any good adventure such as this. We even get nice supporting roles, including a few scenes (which alone are worth the ticket price) with Walton Goggins (the endlessly entertaining Boyd Crowder of Justified) as a dim-bulb robber.
Cowboys & Aliens is the perfectly late-summer movie — not overly ambitious, clearly more interested in having a good time than in creating a classic sci-fi event (or, thankfully, than in creating some kind of sequel-able franchise). B-
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of western and sci-fi action and violence, some partial nudity and a brief crude reference. Directed by Jon Favreau, Cowboys & Aliens is an hour and 58 minutes long and distributed by Universal Pictures.