When you go into a high-powered summer sci-fi action thriller called Cowboys & Aliens, it's a fairly safe bet that you're going to spend two hours watching cowboys and aliens. But what you hope to see, I think, is a film that fuses those two familiar pop-movie elements into something with a tasty, original flavor a genre mash-up that's greater than the sum of its clichés. The first half hour of Cowboys & Aliens is promising. The gifted director Jon Favreau, coming off the two Iron Man films, stages a kind of mini–Rio Bravo set in a dusty mining town full of cowards and bullies, and ruled over by a snarling boss named Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). Into this Old West haven trundles a man with no name...or, rather, a terse, steel-blue-eyed gunslinger (Daniel Craig) who can't remember his name, or anything else. He has no idea how he landed in the desert with a stab wound in his side and a weird metal bracelet locked onto his wrist. But he sure knows how to stare down the local cutthroats, as well as a local petticoated dream girl (Olivia Wilde).
Just as we're getting drawn into the barroom hokum, a spaceship lit up like something out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind looms in the night sky. But there's nothing friendly about these visitors and nothing you haven't seen before, either, in a hundred alien-invasion potboilers. Cowboys & Aliens doesn't treat its war of the worlds as spectacular comedy or, for that matter, as innovative action. Unlike, say, District 9 or Spielberg's War of the Worlds (he's an executive producer here), the film rarely makes your eyes widen in wonder. And the whole aliens-on-the-frontier incongruity never comes to much, really. There are nifty scenes, like the horseback riders battling silvery skeletal airplanes, but what Cowboys & Aliens lacks is a good story. Basically, the characters Craig's enigmatic outlaw, Ford's scowling boss, a tribe of Apache must put aside their differences to form a posse and defeat the invaders. Who do we care about on screen? For all of Craig's edgy charisma, no one. Cowboys & Aliens has fun moments, but it's a plodding entertainment because it mostly tastes like leftovers. C+