This entertaining genre mash-up -- one part western, one part sci-fi -- stretches believability but boasts an excellent cast and impressive action. Daniel Craig ("Quantum of Solace") and Harrison Ford (if you don't know who he is, I can't help you) make a terrific, no-nonsense tandem while the film's imaginative energy permeates nearly every frame.
But there is a certain absurdity to the whole affair that makes the picture seem a bit small in scope, and the cowpoke vs. extraterrestrial dynamic is an odd pairing. Fortunately, the inspired cast and director Jon Favreau's gritty approach to the western backdrop help set "Cowboys & Aliens" apart from standard action/adventure fare.
When outlaw Jake Lonergan (Craig) awakes alone in the desert with fragmented memories and a high-tech device strapped to his wrist, he makes his way to a quiet old-west town run by gruff cow herder Woodrow Dolarhyde (Ford) and kindly sheriff John Taggart (Keith Carradine). Lonergan and Dolarhyde have a strained past -- one Lonergan doesn't remember -- made even more untenable by the disorderly antics of Dolarhyde's spoiled son, Percy (Paul Dano of "There Will Be Blood").
A deadly unexpected attack by alien spacecrafts forces Lonergan and Dolarhyde to work together as Percy, Taggart and several other townspeople are abducted. The pair form a posse that includes Ella (Olivia Wilde of TV's "House M.D."), Doc (Sam Rockwell), Meacham (Clancy Brown) and Nat (Adam Beach) to hunt down the space invaders and rescue their captured kin. And Lonergan's laser-blasting bracelet proves invaluable in the dangerous quest.
Favreau puts together a fantastic cast, perhaps thanks to his own thespian roots. Both Craig and Ford exude a stoic toughness, and their shared screen time is a real boon for the film. Dano and Rockwell -- tremendous and often underrated actors -- shine in their unusual roles. Beach lends the film the necessary emotional poignancy while Wilde's understated performance is mysterious and seductive.
The aliens are adequately menacing, coming across as violent parasites, and the visual effects are impressive. Where "Cowboys" stumbles is with the plot (the aliens are here for the gold, dadgummit) and western/sci-fi blending, a clever idea that starts with promise but soon grows into befuddlement for the audience. The future and the past don't always come together seamlessly, even in Hollywood blockbusters.
Still, Favreau should be commended for assembling a scintillating cast and keeping the action tight and engaging. "Cowboys & Aliens" succeeds despite itself -- you might just get roped in.