From the authentically broken-in look of it, Cowboys & Aliens may have started out as Predator meets True Grit. Once upon a time in the West, somewhere near a played-out mining town, a lone gunslinger (Daniel Craig, pictured) wakes up with no memory of who he is and no idea how a heavy, metallic cuff got locked onto his wrist. But he soon finds out that he has instant recall of how to beat up bad guys. In the run-down town of Absolution, he’s drawn into a shoot-out started by the drunkard son (Paul Dano) of the tyrannical local cattle baron (Harrison Ford).
The other archetypes involved are the wise preacher (Clancey Brown), the saloonkeeper (Sam Rockwell), the exasperated sheriff (Keith Carradine), the put-upon Indian guide (Adam Beach) and feisty Miss Eye Candy (Olivia Wilde). Simmering resentments among the townspeople reach a boil, giving everyone a chance to establish their clichéd characters with snappy dialogue and assured action sequences (“No one calls me Colonel,” says the cattle baron, alluding to his horrific past as a soldier, “and them that did are dead”). But just as lawlessness reaches the federal level, strange lights appear over the horizon, scaring the bejesus out of the townsfolk, and unbeknownst to them, alarming a nearby tribe of Indians.
Directed by Jon Favreau with snappier pacing than any genre-mashing concept movie has right to, Cowboys & Aliens establishes a serious mood that makes the most of its threadbare elements of suspense, especially with how the gunslinger deals with his amnesia—as well as the young lady who seems to know more about him than he’s comfortable with. Craig is as dashing in a wide-brimmed hat as he was in a tuxedo as James Bond, and the gunfights, fistfights, and catfights are smartly choreographed. And then the titular aliens (“demons” in the film’s vernacular) arrive, with their intergalactic lassoes, and this summer popcorn movie goes bust in a big way. The intrusion of CGI—monolithic space vehicles lurking in the sagebrush?—on the film’s classic-Western art direction sends the premise into a tailspin that sucks the liveliness out of the plot’s absurdity, as well as requiring the more enjoyably hard-bitten characters to go soft around the edges (Ford is an embarrassment as a fatherly badass). As for the prospectors from outer space, only the horses appear to have genuine cause to fear gelatinous monsters who can’t tell the difference between a rifle and a saddle.