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Cowboys & Aliens, Universal, 2011, PG-13

Jon Favreau’s Cowboys & Aliens is not nearly as preposterous as its name implies, but rather a gritty adventure with a premise that answers a not-often-asked but intriguing question: What would happen if aliens arrived to attack earthlings not in the present day but in Arizona Territory 1873? This sci-fi Western hybrid works because it keeps its poker face straight throughout, never meandering toward camp. The result is a flawed, special effects–laden and thoroughly entertaining movie.

Tougher-than-dirt Jake Lonergan (Daniel “007” Craig), an amnesiac with a troubled past, wakes up in the desert with a mysterious metal bracelet stuck on his wrist. Turns out, he was the head of a large outlaw gang and has a bounty on his head, but people soon forget about such things when alien spaceships attack the town of Absolution (blowing up buildings and kidnapping random citizens), and Lonergan downs one of the nimble ships with his powerful bracelet gun. Determined, ruthless cattleman Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison “Indiana Jones” Ford) heads up a posse to recover all the lassoed loved ones, including his not-so-lovable son, Percy (Paul Dano). The colonel is smart enough to realize Lonergan’s importance to the mission: “You. You’re going with us. I need that weapon—it’s the only thing that counts.”

The plot draws comparisons to John Ford’s classic Western The Searchers, with the merciless extraterrestrials replacing Chief Scar’s merciless Comanches. Director Ford at least let us know Scar was making war out of revenge for past wounds inflicted by whites. But the green blood of the alien savages runs totally cold; not the slightest touch of E.T. sensitivity is apparent in these insect-like invaders. Instead of a successful genre mash-up, we get the aliens filling the roles of the Indians in Hollywood B Westerns—their only purpose is to disrupt the cowboys’ way of life and give the six-shooter crowd something to shoot at. The unimaginative creepy crawlies don’t have a single line of dialogue, but we eventually learn that what motivates them is gold (no, nothing like the California Gold Rush), and that the captured humans are test subjects for unpleasant experiments.

It boggles the mind how such stupid, if hard-to-kill, aliens have such advanced technology. The movie doesn’t make time to explain such things, and while the Western aspects thrive, the sci-fi elements, like the aliens themselves, get buried in the desert. You come away feeling everyone involved in Cowboys & Aliens just wanted to make a conventional Western; it’s a sad thing being told that’s not financially viable.

The real strength of Favreau’s flick is the acting, led by Craig, who comfortably steps into the role of the silent-but-strong, gun-slinging, morally ambiguous lead. The Brit’s American accent is spot-on, and his demeanor, sharp blue eyes and physical presence call to mind the great Steve McQueen in the memorable 1960 Western The Magnificent Seven. Ford is equally convincing as the tough-as-leather cattle baron who turns out to have a heart of gold (don’t tell the aliens!). The colonel’s posse, well-cast and consistently well-played, includes a saloon owner humorously named “Doc” (the dependable Sam Rockwell), an otherworldly beauty named Ella (Olivia Wilde), a helpful preacher (Clancy Brown), a good Indian named Nat Colorado (Adam Beach) and a good boy (Noah Ringer) who really shouldn’t have been brought along on such a dangerous mission (it wasn’t as if they were searching for E.T.).

The posse’s quest never dulls, whether they’re stumbling upon an overturned riverboat in the middle of the desert or running into Chiricahua Apaches, traditional enemies who join in the good fight against the savages from another solar system. The special effects are mostly cool and rarely detract, and the action scenes are well choreographed. One scene that stands out is when Lonergan leaps from his horse onto a small, flying alien scout ship to save Ella. Once they destroy the craft and plunge into a river, he amusingly proclaims in shock: “We were just flying! I don’t ever wanna do that again.”

Cowboys & Aliens could have used a few more moments like that. After smelted gold covers and exterminates an alien, and the camera pauses the action and focuses on our heroes, Craig and Ford, we don’t get as much as a one-liner. On the other hand, maybe it’s best that director Favreau restrained himself in the use of humor. He wanted to make a substantial summer blockbuster that pays homage to traditional Westerns, not a silly movie that would only be remembered for teaming up James Bond and Indiana Jones in the Old West. For the most part, he succeeds.

—Louis Lalire