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 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 has a nasty gut wound.
Only two types of folks get shot in the Old West. Is he a criminal or a victim?
After he fends off a gang of yokels intent on dragging him into town for possible "reee-ward" money, after he slaps around the town boss' spoiled punk son (Paul Dano, channeling the young Bruce Dern), after he's been arrested for being Jake Lonergan — a wanted man, Jake finds out what the wristband does.
It shoots laser blasts at the spaceships that start out as Close Encounters of the Third Kind lights in the night sky and then swoop down for an air strike on the dusty village where reside 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 (Harrison Ford, always scowling).
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 get those locals back.
Whatever the virtues of the comic book by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg that 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.
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 you might imagine in this situation. The situations pile up as we have the obligatory encounters with a version of the Hole in the Wall Gang, black-toothed rustlers and robbers, and 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.