With Indiana Jones, James Bond, and the man behind Iron Man, you might expect Cowboys & Aliens to be the most entertaining of mash-ups, part True Grit, part Super 8. What you get instead is closer to a disaster flick in the worst sense of the term.
It required an astonishing five screenwriters and director Jon Favreau to take this Platinum Studios comic and almost immediately pack up its promise and ride it into the sunset. The story’s in the title: It’s 1873, and a strong-and-silent stranger, Jake (Daniel Craig), has just arrived in a dusty town, claiming to not know his name or his past but wearing some fancy metal wristband that comes in explosive handy when the area is then attacked by…well, they’re not sure what they are, but “demons” is one guess. Brightly lit spaceships swoop down to blow the place up and lasso its citizens. Why? To study our weaknesses, a battle-ready lady (Olivia Wilde, with the whitest teeth in the West) tells us. They also want our gold. And then they’ll wipe us out. OK.
Helping Jake and the lass take on the E.T.s is another alpha male named Woodrow (Harrison Ford, more grizzled expression than character), along with a ragtag group of cowboys, plain ol’ citizens (including Sam Rockwell), and, eventually, Indians. (See how they learn to get along!) To oomph the aw! factor, we learn that the aliens have taken Jake’s girlfriend and that Woodrow regards his Indian sidekick as more of a son than his actual kid (Paul Dano, barely a presence). But mostly, a lot of stuff blows up, with the appropriately fugly aliens occasionally touching ground to roar and act menacing to our heroes’ faces.
Cowboys & Aliens is not without its charms. It offers a fair dose of humor (particularly how ridiculously ass-kicking Craig’s Jake is) and some exciting action sequences. But the lack of a solid story turns it all into a bunch of (often repetitive) noise and bluster, weakly punctuated by flashbacks or mouthsful of exposition. (A particularly eye-rolling speech extols the gruff Woodrow’s softer side.) Meanwhile, the title’s former half will bore you long before the latter makes their inevitable exit.