Action-packed yet curiously lifeless, "Cowboys & Aliens" shoots blanks. This multitasking genre mash-up successfully unites its discordant elements in a coherent dramatic universe. Despite a stellar cast and out-of-this-world production values, however, it's a saddle-weary horse opera and a low-gravity space opera. Lacking the high-flying zing of Joss Whedon's space-western TV series "Firefly," the movie is competent but never compelling.
Daniel Craig plays a hard-bitten gunslinger who wakes up in the desert with no memory of his past, but with a mysterious mechanical wristlet he can't remove. Making his way to the frontier town of Absolution, he encounters meek saloon owner Sam Rockwell, true-blue sheriff Keith Carradine, trigger-happy town bully Paul Dano, and the punk's father, malevolent cattle baron Harrison Ford. Five characters, 4 1/2 clichés.
Guns are drawn and conflicts are set in gear. Then comes the movie's most unexpected and successful set piece. A formation of glowing lights in the night sky blitzes the town. Blue lasers strafe Main Street, buildings explode, and mechanical lassos ensnare a dozen terrified bit players, lifting them into the darkness and who knows what terrible fate. Craig's bracelet comes to life during the blitz: It's a weapon capable of downing an alien fighter. The survivors track the uncanny attackers back to their hideout.
As the story proceeds, Ford's hard-man character is humanized. He reveals disappointment in his haywire son, and feels a stronger bond to his trusted hired hand, Adam Beach. This is a psychological complexity on loan from the fine James Stewart western "The Man From Laramie." Here it makes no sense. In scene after scene we have observed Ford's quick temper and take-no-prisoners grit. Why didn't he raise his son according to his lights, or knock some sense into the whelp? This is not unruly humanity, it is blind inconsistency.
The settlers band together with an outlaw gang and Indians to rescue the abductees. The big showdown arrives, and disappoints. Horses fly and stuntmen fall. A child who has ridden into danger alongside the adults (the unlikeliest event in this fantasy film) gets to use his new Bowie knife. The aliens are as undifferentiated as the redskins of old, clay pigeons for the good guys.
I haven't mentioned the acting. There isn't much. Craig has become a specialist in dour killers. Here he wears chaps. Ford always contributes an honest day's work, but here he's like a contractor supplied with substandard materials. As the Billy the Kid-style psycho, Dano provides a flare of interest to the proceedings, and Clancy Brown is ticklishly funny as a wry, whiskey-swilling preacher. Neither gets the screen time he deserves. Even the reliably vivid Rockwell is colorless. Most of the players are ciphers. You felt a pang of loss for each doomed killer in "The Wild Bunch." "Cowboys & Aliens" races to its happy ending, casualties forgotten. The alien fighter who crashed onto Main Street? Gone. It's as if the film passed through the amnesia machine itself.