Daniel Craig plays the strong, silent cowboy who wakes in the New Mexico desert with no memory and a chunky metal bracelet on his arm – the first clue to an impending alien invasion. It’s soon clear he can remember how to fight, however, as he rides into the nearest town and humiliates Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano), the arrogant drunken son of big-shot cattleman Woodrow (Harrison Ford). But Woodrow and our hero must team up when an alien spaceship swoops in, plucking up victims and prompting a disparate band of cowboys, Native Americans and mysterious strangers to track it through the wilderness.
It’s here the pace starts to falter. Characters are undercooked, with only a potential romance (Craig and Olivia Wilde) and a surrogate-son routine (Ford and Adam Beach) offering emotional engagement. The aliens themselves have little personality, and their appearance is all too derivative (think slimy grey skin and ‘Alien’-style inner jaws). But the biggest problem is a lack of humour: while Craig looks every inch the cowboy and handles gruff action well, Robert Downey Jr he ain’t.
A handful of funnies simply isn’t enough in a film that should have been handled with B-movie glee rather than pompous plod. With slick action and effects, ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ is a good-looking movie that passes muster as a visual diversion. But once the gang saddle up, what started as ‘True Grit’-meets-’War of the Worlds’ ends up closer to – whisper it – ‘Wild Wild West’.
Cast and crew