'Cowboys & Aliens'

Zade Rosenthal/Courtesy of Universal Studios and DreamWorks Distribution Co.

Director Jon Favreau faithfully pays homage to two genres, while at the same time skillfully blending them, in this fun mix-up that is hardly as kooky as it sounds.

These days, fusion is everything in gourmet cuisine, so why shouldn't filmmakers mix and match movie genres, no matter how crazy? Cowboys & Aliens -- well, the title says it all. Taking the idea from a Platinum Studios graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, this film from Jon Favreau shrewdly blends an alien-invasion movie into a Western. The key to its success lies in the determination by everyone involved to play the damn thing straight. Even the slightest goofiness, the tiniest touch of camp, and the whole thing would blow sky high. But it doesn't.

If you were to assess the mix, it would be about 70 percent Western, 30 percent alien invasion. Which is pretty bold given that aliens are all the rage and Westerns are rarely made. But that's where shrewdness comes in: You expect space invasions; a good Western is a tricky thing to pull off.

A big hit at its Comic-Con world premiere, the Universal release looks primed to round up box-office gold with its target audience. But you suspect this is one monster movie that might even reach older audiences, who would love to slap on chaps and get rough and dirty with a good, old-fashioned Western. Nor does it hurt the appeal to an older crowd that the film unhesitatingly pairs two mature stars, Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, to go against the aliens.

The credits unveil an all-star team of producers, exec producers and writers, but such is the overriding intelligence and singular vision in this picture that you have to assume that Favreau deserves the credit for keeping things true to both genres.

All good Westerns begin when a stranger rides into town. But this stranger, in 1875 New Mexico territory, suffers from amnesia. Played by Craig, the man awakens in the middle of the desert with a strange shackle on his left wrist and no memory of what happened. When he encounters three men who would take advantage of his situation, he quickly discovers -- as does the audience -- he is not a man with whom to be messed.

The town he rides into, on a horse belonging to one of those unfortunate men, is called Absolution, a name that would give anyone pause. It is ruled by a tyrannical cattle baron, Colonel Dolarhyde. That would be Ford, who lets his face and body sag under the weight of his ferocious and bitter sense of power. You get the impression he really wants someone to stand up to him.

When the man with no name challenges the colonel's cowardly son (an amusing Paul Dano), it looks as if the colonel has found such a man. But not before the movie introduces a few townsfolk, including the town's preacher (Clancy Brown); a stressed saloon-keeper (Sam Rockwell) and his plucky wife (Ana de la Reguera); the colonel's unappreciated Indian cowhand (Adam Beach); and the beleaguered sheriff (Keith Carradine, evoking his late father's considerable impact on the Western form) and his eager-to-grow-up grandson (Noah Ringer).

Drifting mysteriously on the periphery but making sure the stranger stays in town when everyone else is keen to see him gone is Ella (Olivia Wilde), who might understand his plight and amnesia.

Just as a showdown of epic proportions seems imminent, an even greater showdown explodes. Alien spacecraft strafe the town and abduct citizens, including the colonel's son. Equally surprising is how the stranger's wrist ornament suddenly springs to life as the only successful weapon against these alien forces. The stranger, as strangers always do in Westerns, has demonstrated his usefulness.

Cowboys & Aliens has reached the crucial juncture that will make or break this odd admixture of a movie. Had the film given way to this sci-fi onslaught, the thing might have turned into the fiasco that was 1999's Wild Wild West.

But no, Favreau and his legion of screenwriters wisely cling to the Western framework. The clear model for the rest of the movie is John Ford's The Searchers, where Indians were on the same level as reptilian space aliens.

Faced with the demise of the planet, all of the Western warring parties -- the cowboys and Indians, cattle barons and townsfolk, the stranger and the colonel -- realize they belong to the same species. So they band together to free the loved ones and eliminate the alien scourge.

As this posse tracks the aliens to their lair with unexpected help from the mysterious Ella, the movie becomes perhaps a tad more conventional. Some of the niftiest sequences and best character reveals happen during this rescue, but if there is a weakness, it's the aliens themselves.

Audiences are used to greater detail and more empathy for movie space creatures. The alien villains here -- while ingenious from a CGI standpoint with multilayered malevolence in bodies that pull back endoplasmic surfaces to reveal further weapons of destruction -- don't rate as characters. They are more like moving blobs you shoot at in a video game. Bam -- gotcha!

Nonetheless, Cowboys & Aliens is a solid success. For a tentpole Comic-Con movie, this one devotes a gratifying amount of time to character and achieves most of its success because Favreau has intelligently cast his film and let his actors do their thing. As good as the visual effects are, you walk away with a memory of actors' faces, lines of dialogue and actions that speak more to character than to shock and awe.

And another thing: That wrist accessory worn by Craig should be a merchandising stroke of genius.

Release date Friday, July 29 (Universal)
Cast Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell
Director Jon Favreau
Producers Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Scott Mitchell Rosenberg
Screenwriters Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman & Damon Lindelof and Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby
Rated PG-13, 118 minutes

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