Cowboys don’t quite reach orbit

Cowboys & Aliens, a mash-up of western and sci-fi clichés, never fully saddles up or reaches for the stars. Still, it ropes you in.

(L to R

(L to R

Cowboys & Aliens

2 1/2 stars (out of 4)

Rated: 14A

Cowboys & Aliens, a mash-up of western and sci-fi clichés, never fully saddles up or reaches for the stars. Still, it ropes you in.

The movie gets by on the strength of agreeable talent who enjoy playing along and can endure the horse manure and space goo being shovelled.

Director Jon Favreau (Iron Man) and his six writers stick to genre basics, setting taciturn earthlings with itchy trigger fingers against alien invaders who, as usual, want to plunder the planet, this time for our gold.

An impressive cast headed by Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, the men behind James Bond and Indiana Jones, enliven an unremarkable screenplay that draws heavily on previous films.

Think Stagecoach and Rio Bravo melded with Aliens and Independence Day and you’ve nailed the ho-hum plot.

It’s 1873 in the desolate splendour of the Arizona Territory. A battered stranger whom we’ll later know as Jake Lonergan (Craig) rouses from being unceremoniously dumped in the dirt. A large metal bracelet covers one wrist, reason unknown.

Lonergan has no memory of who he is or what happened to him (shades of the Bourne films, another influence) but he’s fast on his feet and even better with a gun. He has a knack for attracting attention and trouble, but he knows how to hold his ground.

Lonergan rides into the tumbleweed town of Absolution, a forlorn place ruled by ruthless cattle baron Woodrow Dolarhyde (Ford).

They clash over the lawless antics of Dolarhyde’s idiot son (Paul Dano), who has been hassling the locals, stereotypically represented by a mysterious hottie (Olivia Wilde), a hassled barkeep (Sam Rockwell), an embattled sheriff (Keith Carradine), a droll preacher/sawbones (Clancy Brown) and an impressionable youth (Noah Ringer).

There’s also a cute li’l doggie, who gets along in nearly ever scene.

Guns are cocked, oaths are uttered and brows are furrowed. But before things really get nasty in a terrestrial fashion, anonymous extraterrestrials begin strafing Absolution with their shiny spacecraft and ray guns.

Lonergan and Dolarhyde are going to have to learn how to get along to survive, not only with themselves, but with the Apache Indians whom E.T. also threatens.

The whole thing could have been unbearably goofy, especially since Cowboys & Aliens hasn’t been developed much past the snickering title, coined some 13 years ago, that later begat a comic book.

Favreau might have tried to camp it up the way Barry Sonnenfeld did with Wild Wild West, a similar western/sci-fi hybrid that slipped on it own whoopee cushion.

Instead, Favreau and his writers opt for irony-free drama, a wise choice in this instance, although a little comic relief would have been nice.

There’s no camera winking in Cowboys & Aliens, unless you count the sly Indy Jones smirk that Ford delivers at one point.

And he’s clearly having the time of his life. After having phoned in so many performances in recent years, it’s a treat to see Ford fully invested in a role, one that actually has a grander narrative arc than that of Craig, who is reliably intense (although his American accent unravels at points).

What’s missing is any real sense of wonder, or personal stake in the proceedings. When we get a close look at the aliens, they resemble Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles without shells, they hop like frogs, and their secret fortress looks like an old Transformers prop.

These invaders aren’t terrible scary, but then neither were the E.T.s in Super 8 and Battle: Los Angeles. What has happened to sci-fi creativity?

Few of the confrontations between the cowboys and the aliens prompt cheers or smiles, the way a good action film should.

Maybe that’s because the rules of engagement are so muddled: bullets, arrows and spears don’t work against the armoured aliens, except for when they suddenly do. And that weird metal bracelet on Lonergan’s wrist turns out to be a nifty alien blaster (duh), but he continually forgets he’s wearing it, preferring to use his usually ineffectual gun while the plot plods on.

Logic gaps abound. The Indian chief doesn’t speak a word of English, but he understands it perfectly.

The aliens use fish hooks to capture humans, although they obviously have much cooler technology. Why are they collecting people when it’s gold they’re really after?

Lonergan is also in-and-out, at one climactic point riding off into the sunset to round up the useless desperados he used to rob banks and trains with.

And what’s with the alien obsession with gold? Is that the only resource they want to steal from us? Maybe they’re smart investors who read the business section, since gold is red-hot right now.

Could not something have been made of the obvious connection between alien invaders and the white “settlers” of land already long since populated by Native Americans?

There’s just not enough butter on this popcorn, but at least the film looks and sounds great.

Matthew Libatique’s full-frame lensing recalls the westerns of John Ford and Howard Hawks, and Harry Gregson-Williams’ redolent score gives a slightly out-there feeling to classic western tones.

But it could all have been so much more than it is, and most lamentable of all is that this is just the first of many such mash-ups to come.

So may I offer a suggestion for one? I see a TV series, set in the Old West, which has cowboys fighting zombies.

I call it The Walking Dude. You’re welcome, Hollywood.

Pewter Howell is a syndicated movie critic for The Toronto Star.