Truth in Advertising: Cowboys & Aliens Does in Fact Offer Cowboys and Aliens

Cowboys & Aliens may not win any Oscars, but it should win a Truth in Advertising award. Picture the cast of Unforgiven suddenly discovering they’re in Independence Day and you’ll get the picture.

This movie, directed by Iron Man helmer Jon Favreau, seems to have been designed to while away a couple of hours for airplane viewers. It meets generally agreed-upon blockbuster standards without messing with ideas (as Iron Man did) or providing a comment on reality (ditto) but also without going as bonkers as, say, Green Lantern.

A flinty and ruthless Daniel Craig plays a loner who, as the camera lovingly sweeps over the sandy scrub of the Southwest, wakes up from an unspecified ordeal silently wondering why he has a mysterious slash in his midsection and a high-tech-looking gizmo on his wrist. After he fails to dislodge the latter with a rock he is forced to dispatch a sinister, roaming group of cutthroats that threatens to haul him in for a bounty.

The loner doesn’t remember who he is (or even whether he’s a good guy or a villain -- a nice touch). As he recovers from his wounds in a nearby town where locals include an affable saloon-keeper (Sam Rockwell) and a no-nonsense sheriff (Keith Carradine), he runs afoul of the local punk (Paul Dano), whose habit is to randomly fire his pistol in all directions in the middle of town. The loner doesn’t like this but nobody messes with the kid whose father is the feared cattle baron and controls everything in these parts.

The setup is perfectly enjoyable, exactly the kind of thing Clint Eastwood did so effortlessly in his 70s Westerns, but the hint that things are slightly askew makes you expect a boldly imagined second act. One of many early signs that we might be in for a terrifically suspenseful popcorn picture is the first appearance of the cattle baron, Dolarhyde: He’s Harrison Ford. Even better, he’s the surliest cuss west of the Mississippi. And like so many Eastwood figures, he’s got a Civil War background that has scarred him forever. Best of all: He’s the villain, a leathery hombre as cruel as cactus.