(Jon Favreau, 2011)
This would be a far better experience if you went in blind, unaware of the premise or even of the title, which does sum up the content in three words in a blunt manner which made some audiences who saw the trailer laugh out loud. For it begins as a Western, and the first fifteen to twenty minutes are like a handsome, well-cast, classically shot, slightly overfamiliar modern take on that great old genre, laying out a cast of genre archetypes and their relationships with moderate style and some soildly old-fashioned storytelling.
Then, some spaceships show up and this is suddenly a mash-up of Western and sci-fi.
The sci-fi content is minimal and rudimentary; there is a big spaceship full of aliens, they fly little spaceships and kidnap humans, they look like frogs with muscular, hulking bodies, and they have blasters which render the six-shooters and rifles the men carry largely ineffective.
The narrative takes the form of a pursuit - a group of men seeking to rescue their abducted loved ones - and that allows for a quick tour of some other Western cliches as they encounter a group of bandits and a tribe of Indians on their journey, together with one nicely Herzogian surreal image, that of a massive Mississippi wheel barge lying upside down on the desert floor.
It's all a little overlong, but the pacing and style feels appropriately leisurely for the Western side of this story, and if the final battle is slightly over egged and predictable in its every dramatic beat, Favreau gratifyingly maintains the classical approach throughout, never descending to the manic cutting and chaotic continuity of so much modern blockbuster cinema.
His cast are never really stretched by the material. Daniel Craig does his blunt instrument tough guy thing - and does it well - while Harrison Ford gives yet another rendition of the grumpy old man persona he has fallen into over the last decade or so. The others, a grizzled ensemble including Sam Rockwell, Keith Carradine and Clancy Brown, are good value in the smaller parts.
There is a slightly pedestrian quality to Cowboys & Aliens which means it doesn linger long in the mind. But it is handsome, occasionally thrilling and always watchable, which is more than could have been expected from any film with such a title.