No one does labored breathing in conjunction with a bloody face like Daniel Craig. Starting with Layer Cake and perfected in Casino Royale, he's dialed in on this particular acting method. So it makes perfect sense that Cowboys and Aliens opens with a confused Craig, bloody and battered. Longish opening credits play over the scene, where we see (gulp) five people worked on the screenplay. Still, the quiet, stoic Western mood is set.
The year is 1873 and we're talking Cowboys, plus Aliens. The title alone really works in terms of setting the table, no? At the beginning of the film Daniel Craig has no memory of where he's from, who he is, or how he ended up wandering around in the ol' West. He beats up / kills a few guys before heading into town to try and make sense of it all. A mangy dog shadows him, tumbleweed in the foreground. In town he comes across Harrison Ford's son, played by Paul Dano (of There Will Be Blood fame). Harrison Ford is a grizzled war vet, name-checking the Battle of Antietam with verve. Olivia Wilde appears on the periphery in a bar Craig visits; she's instantly concerned for him, though slightly wary of his apparent predilection for violence. Perhaps his handiness with a weapon will come back to help them? Yes indeed, all personal vendettas are abruptly put on hold as aliens invade via spacecraft to abduct a few of the townsfolk. A posse is gathered, the fight must be taken to the non-Earthling interlopers, and we're off.
The first compelling aspect of Cowboys and Aliens is the much appreciated lack of price-gouging 3-D. Glorious 2-D! The effects are solid throughout the film, aliens and horses intermingling in perfect harmony. The chemistry between Wilde, Craig, and Ford works, for the most part, though the film has lulls when the genre is Western (as opposed to sci-fi). The innovation of the film is another feather in its cap, as the dilemma of killing massive (and fast-moving) aliens with light weaponry is put front and center. There are also a fair amount of strong one-liners. Yep, Cowboys and Aliens has jokes!
Still, the story does have a rather cheesecloth feel. The holes are small, but placed all over the place, occasionally causing Cowboys and Aliens to lose its whey. There's also the minor problem of character motivation. A few of the protagonists act in a manner that's not exactly authentic. The father-son relationship between Harrison Ford and Paul Dano is quite thin, and the fight physics seem to change from scene to scene. It's as if there wasn't a central guiding force, no essential story that everyone wanted to tell.
The other thing that might not be apparent from the marketing efforts is the mystery vibe of the film. The first 90 minutes deal with the myriad of questions that would present themselves if aliens appeared to a pre-computer culture. Who are they? What do they want? Can we ask them nicely to leave? The answers to all these questions and more can be found in Cowboys and Aliens. Part mystery, part sci-fi, part Western, this is a film that mostly entertains, even if it doesn't live up to the full-on madness potential the title portended.