“Cowboys & Aliens” is a great title. It suggests a scenario wherein Wild West frontiersmen encounter extra-terrestrials, which is a great premise. For all I know, the 2006 graphic novel is indeed great. But the movie — which is attributed to no fewer than five writers, plus a sixth who gets “story by” credit — definitely isn’t, though it avoids botching it entirely. The cowboys and aliens are here, sure enough. They just didn’t bring enough fun with them.
From what I can tell, apart from the basic idea, the plot bears almost no resemblance to the graphic novel (which was published long after the original concept had been pitched as a movie anyway). Here we have a mysterious man named Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) who wakes up in the sagebrush outside a small town in the Old West and has no memory of who he is or how he got what looks like a gunshot wound in his side. He also cannot recollect the origin of the odd bracelet now affixed to his wrist. He knows how to draw, shoot, and fight, though, and it becomes clear soon enough that he is an outlaw, albeit the charming and lovable kind.
In town, Jake stands up to Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano), the bratty son of a wealthy cattleman who, owing to his father’s influence, can usually do pretty much whatever he wants, and isn’t used to being stood up to. That puts Jake at odds with Percy’s father, Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), but those matters are set aside when, out of nowhere, several small aircraft swoop through town and snatch up a bunch of townsfolk. Among the taken are Percy, the sheriff (Keith Carradine), the lovely wife (Ana de la Reguera) of the saloon owner (Sam Rockwell). It befalls Jake and Dolarhyde to gather up a posse and go a-searchin’ for them.
As luck would have it, that bracelet on Jake’s arm is a laser gun that he can sometimes use as a weapon. Other than that, all they’ve got to help them defeat the aliens are the six-shooters and lassos common to the Western genre. They aren’t short on stock characters, though: an Indian (Adam Beach) who serves as Dolarhyde’s faithful employee; a young boy (Noah Ringer) whose grandpa was taken and who is just learning the ways of the West; a preacher man (Clancy Brown); and a beautiful stranger, Ella (Olivia Wilde), who says some of her people were taken, too.
Cheerfully but rather aimlessly directed by Jon Favreau (“Iron Man”), the film does well when it’s employing the Western genre devices and giving the charismatic Daniel Craig and grumpy-puss Harrison Ford something to argue about, shoot at, or run from. Ford, who has seemed a little … let’s say “detached” … the last few films, actually appears to be having a good time here, which raises everyone’s spirits. And hey, Sam Rockwell is always fun to have around. Walton Goggins, the terrifically hotheaded actor from “The Shield” and “Justified,” livens things up as a member of Jake’s former gang. The Southwestern scenery is gorgeous. The special effects are outstanding.
But man, does it ever drag on for too long, and with too little payoff. The humor tends to be almost (but not quite) funny, the action almost (but not quite) thrilling, the story almost (but not quite) original. There are sequences where all of those elements rise to the level of quality befitting the talent involved, and you start thinking, “OK, this is fun. I’m enjoying this!” And then it wears off, and there’s yet another scene meant to show us that gruff old Woodrow Dolarhyde is really a softie. (The film is intent on showing us that.) This is the kind of blandly entertaining summer flick that you’ll happily watch a half-hour of when you catch it on cable in a few years.
C+ (1 hr., 58 min.; )