If I didn’t already know this was based on an existing graphic novel, I might have assumed that the title was a leftover “working” title, and no one could be bothered to come up with anything better when the film was completed. Despite the major-league production values and the marquee value of Indiana Jones and James Bond in the cast, this is a forgettable pot-boiler that does proper service to only one half of its title.
A nameless stranger (Daniel Craig) wakes up with no memory of who he is, a wound in his side, and a large and strangely unremovable metal bracelet on one wrist. He reaches the nearest town, where people recognize him as Jake Lonergan, notorious stagecoach robber. Awkward.
The Sheriff (Keith Carradine) has other problems. The son of a ruthless and powerful cattle baron has been shooting up the town and his daddy, Col. Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), wants him out of jail. Now. He also recognizes Lonergan as the man who stole his gold. Very awkward.
Everyone’s problems take a back seat when, from out of nowhere, a bunch of alien ships appear in the sky, blow up half the town and snatch several of the townsfolk into the sky, including the Sheriff and Dolarhyde’s son, but it turns out that the thing on Lonergan’s wrist can shoot down the alien ships.
Only two kinds of men get shot: criminals and victims. Which one are you?
Forced to put their differences aside to rescue their people, Dolarhyde, Lonergan, and a posse of townsfolk ride after one of the aliens that Lonergan wounded.
As a western, Cowboys and Aliens works reasonably well. Ford, Craig, Carradine, and the rest play their archetypal roles with an infectious enthusiasm. Olivia Wilde is effective (and delicious) as a mysterious woman who seems to know too much about just about everything.
Unfortunately, the sci-fi side of this story doesn’t live up to its nods toward the classic westerns. The aliens, their purpose on Earth, and their reasons for snatching up people don’t seem very well thought out, existing only to provide the cowboys with a politically correct substitute for Native Americans when it comes time to start shootin’ stuff.
This could have been an superior mashup of two classic genres. It is moderately entertaining, if you’re bored and your standards aren’t too high, but once the “Cowboys and Aliens” portion of the proceedings starts in earnest, the story feels like something a thirteen-year-old boy would draw in the margins of his notebook when he should be paying attention in class.