The genre mash-up of “Cowboys & Aliens” is more a mush-up, an action yarn aiming to be both science fiction and Old West adventure but doing neither all that well.
The filmmakers — and there are a lot of them, among them director Jon Favreau, 11 producers or executive producers including Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, plus half a dozen credited writers — start with a title that lays out a simple but cool premise: invaders from the skies shooting it out with guys on horseback.
For all the talent involved, they wound up keeping the story too simple, almost simple-minded, leaving a terrific cast led by Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford stuck in a sketchy, sometimes poky tale where you get cowboys occasionally fighting aliens and not much more.
Based on a graphic novel from Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, also a producer on the movie, “Cowboys & Aliens” has Craig doing the stony-faced lone rider thing to such stoic extremes it borders on blandness. Ford is similarly constricted in a stereotyped role as the tyrannical overlord of a Western town, though his unfailing charisma does imbue some spirit into his under-developed character.
Really, the only clever thing about “Cowboys & Aliens” is the basic idea itself. The Western trappings are mostly dull, the aliens and sci-fi elements are unimaginative, and cramming them together is not enough to make them interesting.
As the story opens in 1875, Craig’s amnesiac Jake Lonergan wanders into the dusty New Mexico town of Absolution with no clue to his identity and bearing a strange metal bracelet on his wrist. Within minutes, he begins running afoul of the town’s leaders, crossing the cowardly son (Paul Dano) of local cattle baron Woodrow Dolarhyde (Ford), then tussling with the sheriff (Keith Carradine) and his deputies.
Just as it looks as though we’re in for a showdown among a band of greedy thugs and decent townfolk in need of a hero, space craft swoop in and start snatching people right off the streets. Six-shooters are like firing blanks at the speedy ships, but Jake’s wristband comes to life, and he gradually learns how to use it as a weapon to fight back against what the villagers initially assume are demons.
Dolarhyde leads Jake and a posse in pursuit of the creatures, accompanied by the mysterious gun-toting Ella (Olivia Wilde), who knows more about these beings than she lets on.
Director Favreau slipped from fresh and flamboyant on “Iron Man” to lame and listless on its sequel, and there’s more of the latter on “Cowboys & Aliens.” The posse creeps along through close encounters with outlaws and Apaches and has more abduction run-ins with the aliens.
Yet other than seeing the two blended together, there’s nothing here that hasn’t been done far better in many Westerns and science-fiction flicks. The aliens are anonymous monsters, and the human folk are mostly cardboard types like those you’ll find in any old Western.
The action plays out against grand, gorgeous landscapes captured by cinematographer Matthew Libatique, while the visual effects are standard stuff, save for one very impressive explosion.
As a jittery saloon owner, Sam Rockwell gets to toss out a few funny lines, and Adam Beach manages a few moments of pathos as Dolarhyde’s main hand. As the sheriff’s young grandson, Noah Ringer is there to broaden the movie’s kid appeal but doesn’t really add to the story.
Though Ford is pushing 70, it’s odd seeing him relegated to second billing in an action movie. His role is big, and it does give him a chance to play a bit nastier than usual.
But Craig’s role is the sort Ford might have done if “Cowboys & Aliens” came 20 years earlier. Craig’s probably the better actor of the two, but Ford’s a true movie star, and it’s easy to imagine a livelier film if Jake had more of that Indiana Jones rogue’s charm and less of the tightly wound menace Craig has made a part of his take on James Bond.