We begin in classic, saddle-sore terrain. A lone stranger with a mysterious past — Daniel Craig fills the boots here — rides into a Godforsaken town in the Arizona territory. More familiar archetypes are waiting for him there: the grizzled rancher-potentate (Harrison Ford's Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde); his feckless, rowdy wastrel for a blood heir (Paul Dano); and his worthy and doting but unappreciated ranch foreman (Adam Beach), an adopted son enviously watching on — the dynamic from Anthony Mann's The Man from Laramie. On the periphery are Sam Rockwell's meek shopkeeper and Olivia Wilde as a strangely out-of-time elfin beauty with a gun belt on her waist.
This motley bunch is soon at each other's throats, but when an attack from the outside ends with loved ones kidnapped, the squabbling parties must circle the wagons and work together on a rescue mission. Forty years ago that attack would certainly have come from "alien" men called Apache, Sioux, or Comanche. Today's enemies are, however, literal aliens; the Cowboys and Indians rivalry played on by the title has fallen out of fashion. There are Apache on hand in Cowboys & Aliens but, after initial tension with Ford's gruff old soldier, they band together with townsfolk and outlawry alike to take a common stand for humanity.
Director Jon Favreau's experiment in genre crossbreeding — a Western-sci-fi mashup pumped full of inspirational all-in-this-together spirit — is a cute, crowd-pleasing idea, though more decadent than a revitalization of either genre. The sci-fi element is such standard-issue space-invader stuff as to be hardly worth consideration as anything other than a gimmick. The Western tropes are more lovingly dealt with, but here the genre, which has long striven toward maturity, is made "fun" again through dislocation from historical fact. Violence is likewise freed from any moral dimension, with very grotesque extraterrestrials providing new, definitely nonhuman targets that can be guiltlessly exterminated. (In one curious intervention of history and morality, though, there's a brief shot of piled pocket watches and gold teeth accumulated by the gold-harvesting aliens — it seems to equate the invaders with Nazis.) Abstracted, the Western's ideals and rituals become meaningless clichés. When ex-Yankees and Confederates unite under the Stars and Stripes together at the bitter end of Sam Peckinpah's Major Dundee, there's weight to the rapprochement. When Favreau bands together unlikely allies against the Others, it's under the gray flag of something-for-everyone popcorn entertainment.
It should be noted that Favreau is a capable storyteller among blockbuster blowhards. As in his handling of the first Iron Man, he displays here the rare ability to patiently lay down the track along which his narrative will move, and he gets some good work from his performers. Ford, enlivened by dude garb, seems to enjoy himself in front of a camera for the first time in decades, and his scenes with Beach have real reverb. They stand out amid rambunctious "summer fun" pyrotechnics, which are much the same every year, like on the Fourth.