Anyone expecting a movie called Cowboys & Aliens to be anything more than scrap heap fantasy is barking up the wrong sagebrush.
This movie looks about as western authentic as that Six Gun Territory attraction near Ocala that closed around the time Disney invaded Florida. The script is suitable for dialogue balloons, but that's okay since it's based on a comic book. And the aliens can be excused for resembling those fungus monsters that TV commercials warn are living under our toenails.
That's because this movie, saddle sores and all, is a lot of fun. First, director Jon Favreau shows his affection for John Ford's frontier vistas and deep-dish casting, plus Sam Peckinpah's smashmouth justice, pounded down by an ask-questions-later hombre. Daniel Craig plays the man with no name he can remember after a close encounter of the amnesiac kind, wounded and wearing a strange shackle on his wrist.
He rides to Absolution, the kind of generic movie cowtown that has a doctor who's a preacher and a bartender named Doc. You can almost smell fresh lumber, as unconvincing as Favreau's set designs are. The action is in the street, where Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano) is on another drunken rant about how his cattle baron daddy, Woodrow (Harrison Ford), runs this town. Then he picks on the stranger. Bad idea, twice.
Percy gets locked up by the sheriff (Keith Carradine, channeling his father, John), and Woodrow rides into town snorting orders to let him go. Just when it appears leather will be slapped, strange lights appear in the nighttime sky. It's the other half of the movie's title, strafing Absolution with astro bombs and snatching people like roping calves at a rodeo. It's a terrific sequence, as silly as the premise promises, yet played poker face effectively.
We learn that the stranger is Jake Lonergan, an outlaw with fences to mend with Dolarhyde and a few other folks from a past he gradually recalls through hallucinations. We also understand why aliens have decided to attack Arizona, and it's a passable excuse. Interrupting the tough talk and air attacks by metallic scorpions is Emma Swenson (Olivia Wilde, a Megan Fox with talent), who knows more about Jake, his bracelet and the invaders than she lets on.
Cowboys & Aliens is so preposterous that it could collapse into a steaming pile of Wild Wild West at any moment, yet the actors are so good at appearing convinced that this malarkey is really happening. Nobody hints at winking at the audience, and even the script's lone true joke is delivered by Sam Rockwell so naturally that it sounds like real conversation. For once in a sci-fi blockbuster, the actors matter.
Craig ably conceals his British accent, retaining his James Bond air of coiled menace. He looks comfortable in western drag and capable of bringing more depth to Jake's sentimental memories than the script provides. Ford hasn't been this good in a movie in a long time, growling with gusto and relishing Woodrow's down-and-dirty tactics, including a funny bit involving two horses and a trussed-up cowboy — the flip side of Indiana Jones shooting a scimitar-swinging assailant. It's just one of those moments making Cowboys & Aliens such guilty fun.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.