"Cowboys & Aliens," alternately slam-bang and sloggy, is what is known in the trade as a genre mash-up. This mash-up is fine with me.
There's no reason westerns and sci-fi extravaganzas shouldn't be friends, especially since many of the most famous sci-fi films, like "Star Wars," are essentially westerns anyway – westerns in space.
The action in "Cowboys & Aliens" takes place not out there but right here, in the New Mexico Territory in 1875. Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the desert with amnesia, a bloody wound on his torso, and a bulky manacle cuffed to his wrist. There's also a tintype of a lovely lady lying at his feet. (Come to think of it, this opening is also an homage to the film noir genre, not to mention the "Bourne" series.) When a scurvy band of outlaws rides up, Jake, to his surprise and certainly theirs, eliminates them in short order.
The next stop for this hard-edged loner is the town of Absolution, ruled by a snarling cattle baron, Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). Dolarhyde's bullying son Percy (Paul Dano) makes the same mistake with Jake that the outlaws made.
We're well into the movie before any aliens descend from the skies, but since the traditional western elements in this early section were so good, I didn't mind. Frankly, I could have done without the aliens altogether, except, of course, that would kill off the merchandising tie-ins and the buzz. When director Jon Favreau and his team of five writers – working off a Platinum Studios graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg – finally get around to the aliens, they're simply not as interesting as the cowboys. The CGI work is fine but not exemplary. You've seen one gloppy ghoul spewing its fangs, you've seen them all.
Still, it's fun, at least for a while, to watch the humans – who also include Keith Carradine as the town sheriff, Adam Beach as Dolarhyde's Indian cowhand, and Olivia Wilde as the requisite (sort of) love interest – go up against the aliens and be entirely mismatched. The one big exception is Jake's manacle, which, for reasons that become clear in a slowly revealed backstory, seems capable of vaporizing the marauders.
The manacle's powers aren't always consistent, though, and the aliens' powers aren't either, so the big face-offs between the cowboys and the aliens tend to collapse into a blur of blams and splats. If the aliens had been given anything like the fine-tuned characterizations of Jake and Dolarhyde and the others, the matchups might have been more galvanizing. This way, they play out video-game style.
Craig is still in his surly 007 mode, but it fits here. Ford, who has been walking through his movies for years, comes through with a real performance underneath all the growls and spittle.
Will this film revive the western, a hallowed genre that many of us wish had never faded away (despite the occasional flare-up like "True Grit")?
I doubt it. More likely is that it will inspire more, and lesser, mash-ups, not only in the western-sci-fi realm but in everything else. Already set is "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies."
• Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of western and sci-fi action and violence, some partial nudity, and a brief crude reference.