DVD Release Date: December 6, 2011
Theatrical Release Date: July 29, 2011
Rating:  PG-13 (for intense sequences of western and sci-fi action and violence, some partial nudity and a brief crude reference)
Genre:  Action, Sci-Fi, Thriller, Western
Run Time: 118 min.
Director: Jon Favreau
Actors: Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, Adam Beach, Paul Dano, Noah Ringer, Keith Carradine, Clancy Brown, Ana de la Reguera, Abigail Spencer

1873. Arizona Territory. A wounded stranger (Daniel Craig, Defiance) wakes up in the desert with no memory of who he is, where he is, how he got there, or why he’s wearing a strange, metal cuff on his wrist. Fortunately, he hasn’t forgotten his mad fighting skills . . . and it won’t be long before he’s going to need them.

Next stop: Absolution. Absolution, Arizona, that is—a small godforsaken town ruled with an iron fist by Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford, Morning Glory). Dolarhyde is bad enough on his own, but like many a powerful man he has a spoiled bully of a son. Young Percy tries to prove himself by tormenting townspeople who depend on his father’s good pleasure.

Shortly after arriving in town, the stranger meets Ella (Olivia Wilde, TRON: Legacy), a mysterious woman who knows a lot more than she’s telling. But never mind that . . . something’s coming over the horizon and it’s not the cavalry.

Imagine the reaction of our dusty townsfolk when giant creatures swoop down from the sky, torch their town, lasso their loved ones, and fly off into the night, captives in tow. Despite their conclusion the attackers must be demons, they bravely form a posse that includes a woman (Ella), a boy (the sheriff’s grandson), and a dog (long story). It’s not exactly normal, but what’s normal about tracking demons?

Oh, and that metal thing on the stranger’s wrist? Turns out it’s a weapon and about the only thing capable of blowing an alien’s head off. Just a little hint of weirder things to come.

A word of advice: if you must take a drink into this movie, make sure it has a firmly-fastened lid otherwise you will almost certainly wind up wearing it. Even after multiple surprises, one sudden alien appearance nearly startled me right out of my seat.

All the fighting, alien abductions, shooting, alien experiments, torture, and so on adds up to a lot of violence—but it’s remarkably "tasteful" violence. There’s not much actual gore, most of the truly nasty stuff is just out of the shot, and the camera doesn’t linger on anything too awful unless you count the aliens, who are disgusting in a slimy, creepy, slurpy kind of way.

Daniel Craig makes a mighty fine cowboy, even if he did ride his horse English-style at the beginning. (He stuck to his saddle in later scenes.) He’s a quintessential Old West hero: a man of few words who rides into town and tries to atone for the mistakes of his past by defending the weak and helpless.

In something of a departure, Harrison Ford is not the hero of this piece, but he’s not quite the villain, either. As the Colonel is forced to confront his actions and their consequences, flashes of the better man he once was peek through. He’ll find redemption in the end, though it comes at a price.

Indeed, “Absolution” is more than the name of the town; it’s the undercurrent of the film. As the gun-toting, whisky-drinking preacher assures the stranger, “God doesn’t care who you were, boy, only who you are.” Before it’s over, multiple parties will have done the right thing, including offering and accepting forgiveness.

Cowboys & Aliens is a 118-minute roller coaster ride. It’s intense more than scary, with “gotcha” moments looming anytime the action even thinks about slowing down. I wouldn’t take a child, a young teen, or anyone of a nervous disposition along, but if you like westerns and/or sci-fi, this is a must-see. It has cowboys . . . and aliens. What’s not to love?

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol: Considerable whisky consumption, even the preacher partakes. Several saloon scenes. Character given unspecified (possibly hallucinogenic) drink. Smoking.
  • Language/Profanity: A wide variety but not much quantity by today’s standards. D-word, once in conjunction with God; son of a b----; what the h---; s-word (combined with “bull” and as a standalone); references to male body parts as peck—and ba----; female identified as a prostitute and referred to as a who--. Two characters shown answering the call of nature and a couple of potty-humor references. The Holy Family’s first names used as profanity.
  • Sex/Nudity: One brief back view of a nude female, not in a sexual situation. A couple of kisses, some between married couples, some not.
  • Violence: Begins almost immediately and continues almost nonstop until the end. Shooting, stabbing, beating, spitting, dragging, blows to crotch, broken teeth, torture inflicted by both human and aliens.
  • Spiritual Themes: Redemption is a theme, though from a works perspective rather than via a relationship with God. One character is exposed as an alien in human form upon apparently rising from the dead. (Human death not necessarily equaling alien death.) Ford’s character infers that “becoming a man” equals killing another person. A graveside prayer is theologically fuzzy but well-intentioned.