When you go into a high-powered summer sci-fi action thriller called Cowboys & Aliens, it’s a fairly safe bet that you’re going to spend two hours watching cowboys and aliens. But what you hope to see, I think, is a film that fuses those two familiar pop-movie elements into something with a tasty, original flavor — a genre mash-up that’s greater than the sum of its clichés. The first half hour of Cowboys & Aliens is promising. The gifted director Jon Favreau, coming off the two Iron Man films, stages a kind of mini?Rio Bravo set in a dusty mining town full of cowards and bullies, and ruled over by a snarling boss named Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). Into this Old West haven trundles a man with no name…or, rather, a terse, steel-blue-eyed gunslinger (Daniel Craig) who can’t remember his name, or anything else. He has no idea how he landed in the desert with a stab wound in his side and a weird metal bracelet locked onto his wrist. But he sure knows how to stare down the local cutthroats, as well as a local petticoated dream girl (Olivia Wilde).
Just as we’re getting drawn into the barroom hokum, a spaceship lit up like something out of Close ? Encounters of the Third Kind looms in the night sky. But there’s nothing friendly about these visitors — and nothing you haven’t seen before, either, in a hundred alien-invasion potboilers. Cowboys & Aliens doesn’t treat its war of the worlds as spectacular comedy — or, for that matter, as innovative action. Unlike, say, District 9 or Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (he’s an executive producer here), the film rarely makes your eyes widen in wonder. And ? the whole aliens-on-the-frontier incongruity never comes to much, really. There are nifty scenes, like the horseback riders battling silvery skeletal airplanes, but what Cowboys & Aliens lacks is a good story. Basically, the characters — Craig’s enigmatic outlaw, Ford’s scowling boss, a tribe of Apache — must put aside their differences to form a posse and defeat the invaders. Who do we care about on screen? For all of Craig’s edgy charisma, no one. Cowboys & Aliens has fun moments, but it’s a plodding entertainment because it mostly tastes like leftovers. C+