The problem with the expensive bricolage Cowboys & Aliens is evident as early as the opening scene, which might only be considered striking if this were your first movie summer season, and you hadn't seen a Bourne movie before it. A stranger with the face of James Bond wakes up in the New Mexico desert with no memory of how he got there, or how he got the gaping wound on his side, or how he got the hi-tech tracking device strapped to his wrist. Jon Favreau's film establishes itself as at once a mishmash of semi-familiar elements, the product of an industry trying on different hats and boots for size, and seeing what might fit: it could just as easily have been Robots and Aliens, or Cowboys versus Sever, or Eh versus Meh. Nobody really wins.
Presumably, at some long-distant stage, this was somebody's idea of a BOGOF movie: you buy a ticket for a Western, and you get a summer sci-fi extravaganza thrown in for nothing. The Stranger (Daniel Craig) is dragged into the nearest town, where the local populace is ruled over by grumpy cattle boss Harrison Ford; Ford and Craig, who seem more like a craggy father-son act than antagonists, begin circling one another, and seem poised to embark upon one almighty growl-off when aliens sweep into town; at which point, the special effects guys start blowing up everything in sight, while our surviving heroes saddle up and go after the loved ones the invaders have beamed back up with them.
The six credited writers (seven, if you count Scott Michael Rosenberg, who penned the original comic book) have between them come up with a checklist of tropes, inserted into scenes that could play in almost any order. These include: flashbacks to Craig's past, horse riding (always stirring on some level, even in stone-dead mediocrities like this), ambushes, mystic mumbo-jumbo among the native Americans (Craig's visions are uncannily close to Jim Morrison's acid trips in The Doors), a bit in some abandoned mines, and a corseted love interest in pre-assembled FHM cover-girl Olivia Wilde, this summer's idea of the new Megan Fox, but sadly as drippy on screen as the wet blouses the film contrives to put her in at regular intervals. Wit and cohesion don't seem to figure high on the movie's list of priorities, and you struggle to shake off the sense there's a cheap, straight-to-DVD item somewhere doing all this without the waste of the premise, that title, this much money, or the stellar personnel.
Sam Rockwell (as a tagalong doctor) and Paul Dano (as Ford's bratty son) have less of note to do than the supporting players in Favreau's Iron Man movies, and while Keith Carradine certainly looks the part puffing on a pipe on the porch of a saloon, the film badly needed another oldtimer in the cast to give the Western business any gravitas: Ford is his now-usual, disinterested self, as well he might be, given this piffling, second-fiddle role. As for Craig, handed material no less forgettable than the last Bond movie, well, he gets to kill some more time before working with David Fincher on the Girl with a Dragon Tattoo remake, but the actor's pumped-up physicality comes to count against whatever sense of threat or peril this terminally PG-13 movie was aiming for in the first place: it's quite hard to cheer for a hero who's perfectly capable of handing out regular, brutal smackdowns even before he discovers the planets have aligned to equip him with a wrist-mounted ballistic missile launcher.
Cowboys & Aliens is on nationwide release.