Daniel Craig carries a Steve McQueen cool — a man of few words toughness — in his latest film. And had McQueen ever taken on a Western that also involves bug-eyed aliens kidnapping the locals, he’d have played it a lot like the Once and Future James Bond.
Though maybe he’d have picked a different hat.
“Cowboys & Aliens” — the title leaves out the Indians, the desperadoes and the homesteaders — is a perfectly serviceable B-movie in the modern mold — lots of money, lots of stars, lots of explosions and lots of credited screenwriters. That it lacks the snap, crackle and kapow of the summer’s better comic book blockbusters isn’t surprising. With all this effort riding on a big, expensive and rushed studio summer picture, the real miracle is that any of them come to life.
We meet Craig’s mostly-silent stranger in the desert. He wakes up on the road to Absolution. There’s this heavy bracelet on his left wrist. He’s got a nasty gut wound.
Only two types of folks get shot in the Old West. Is he a criminal or a victim?
“I don’t remember.”
“Got a name, friend?”
“I don’t know that, either.”
“What DO you know?”
After he fends off a gang of yokels intent on dragging him into town for possible “RE-ward” money, after he slaps around the spoiled punk son (Paul Dano, channeling the young Bruce Dern) of the town boss, after he’s been arrested for being Jake Lonergan — a wanted man, Jake finds out what the wrist-band does.
It shoots laser blasts at the alien spaceships that start out as “Close Encounters” lights in the night sky and then swoop down for an air strike on the dusty village where the preacher (Clancy Brown, very good), the sheriff (Keith Carradine, excellent), saloon keeper (Sam Rockwell, not bad), prostitute (Olivia Wilde, all-cheekbones) and ruthless cattle boss (an always scowling Harrison Ford) reside.
And since these “demons” are lassoing the locals and the stranger has the only thing that can shoot them, he gets drafted into a posse to and get those locals back.
Whatever the virtues of the comic book this came from, the story here is a simple hybrid — “Rio Bravo” Western glued to “Star Wars” sci-fi quest. Round up friends, mount up, chase the bad guys and free the hostages. And watch out for those Tie Fighters guarding the Death Star!
The Western works better than the science fiction here, as director Jon Favreau (“Iron Man”) struggles to get comfortable with the genre and his cast struggles to look comfortable on horses. But there’s plenty of sturdy support from a nice collection of character actors, especially Brown and Carradine. Brown delivers the script’s best line with a hardscrabble preacher’s conviction.
“God don’t care who you were, son, only who you are.”
The jokes are Western jokes. Mostly. The posse comes across another “Close Encounters” reference — a riverboat marooned in the desert.
“I don’t know much about boats,” Rockwell’s “Doc” drawls, “but I’d say that thing is upside down.”
After a promising start, presenting Craig’s character as a man of mystery, Favreau’s movie sets out to solve that mystery, and every other one that you might imagine in this situation or that one. The situations pile up as we have the obligatory encounter with a version of the Hole in the Wall Gang, black-toothed rustlers and robbers, and a band Native American warriors.
And the less mysterious “Cowboys & Aliens” is, the more tedious it becomes. See it if it’s your thing. But don’t go around yelling “FRANCHISE” at this three-legged horse just yet.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of western and sci-fi action and violence, some partial nudity and a brief crude reference
Cast: Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde
Credits: Directed by Jon Favreau, based on the Scott Mitchell Rosenberg comic, produced by Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelhof, Roberto Orci, Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, A Universal release.
Running time: 1:58