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No sharp shooter

COWBOYS & ALIENS Sci-fi/Western. Starring Harrison Ford, Daniel Craig, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, Paul Dano, Keith Carradine. Directed by Jon Favreau. Cert 12A.

This must have seemed like such a good idea at some point. Based on a 2006 comic, the title alone would have provided the pitch for the movie and, with Harrison Ford on board as a prickly cattle baron and Daniel Craig signed up as an enigmatic outlaw, one can imagine corporate lips smacking at the prospect. Hmmh, Indiana Jones and James Bond kicking alien ass in the Old West -- me likee!

Unfortunately Cowboys & Aliens has the feel of a film which began with the best of intentions but became lost in the canyons of compromise which loom on the horizon whenever a project is passed through several production companies.

When you see names such as Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard listed among the lengthy executive producer credits and note the presence of no less than five screenwriters (to bring a bloody comic about cowboys and aliens to the screen for God's sake!) it's difficult to escape the feeling that this is an endeavour which has had all potential life rinsed out of it. The script seems to have been shunted from one set of suspicious suitors to the next, each making their own contribution while chipping away at what might have made it more unique and interesting entertainment.

Set in New Mexico in 1873, Cowboys & Aliens begins with Daniel Craig's character waking up in the desert, bloodied and amnaesic and with a mysterious metal bracelet attached to his wrist. Quickly and brutally (for a 12A movie) despatching three grizzled scalphunters who come across him, our Man With No Memory finds himself in the town of Absolution, which is at the mercy of Percy (Paul Dano), the feckless, trigger-happy son of Col Woodrow Dolarhyde (Ford), a feared Civil War veteran whose cattle business is keeping the town alive.

With his identity established as that of Jake Lonergan, a wanted outlaw and murderer, Craig finds himself in a prison wagon bound for a federal noose when the town is suddenly attacked by alien spacecraft, which not only blast most of the town to oblivion but employ lasso-like devices to hoist several townsfolk into the sky.

Hooray, alien abduction Wild West-style.

However, Jake's mysterious wristband is of alien origin and means he can shoot down the intruders so he and Dolarhyde form an uneasy alliance to retrieve the abductees and that, pretty much, is that. Sorry, I did mention that five screenwriters put this puppy to bed, didn't I?

Cowboys & Aliens isn't totally rotten by any means and certainly not a bloated buzzard like the sci-fi/western disaster that was 1999's Wild Wild West.

Ford is so gruff and cantankerous he may as well have been rehearsing for his contractual promotional duties, while Craig oozes a brooding menace befitting his character's anti-hero credentials. And yet this could have been so much better had the plot not felt like such a compromised cop-out, not to mention how interesting things might have been had Iron Man director Jon Favreau gone with his original casting of Robert Downey Jr as Jake Lonergan.

Not the worst but far from the best, Cowboys & Aliens is by-the-numbers, 'in one eye and out the other' summer blockbuster fodder. And, thank God, it's the last of the season. HHHII

IN A BETTER WORLD Drama. Mikael Persbrandt, Trine Dyrholm, Ulrich Thomsen, William Johnk Nielsen, Markus Rygaard. Directed by Susanne Bier. Cert 12A

Winner of this year's Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, In a Better World is a well-structured, balanced movie with a clearly defined story and decent performances, but beneath there's a nagging undercurrent of melodrama and moral finger-wagging and a black-and-white worldview which appealed to Academy voters.

Danish director Susanne Bier and her regular scriptwriter Anders Thomas Jensen previously brought us the excellent tale of moral conflict Brodre (Jim Sheridan gave us a fine remake with Brothers) and, while she may have lost her way with the mawkish maudlin mush of Things We Lost in the Fire, she's back on more certain ground.

In a Better World is about violence and the consequences of violence. Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) is a Swedish doctor working in an unnamed African country where he's horrified to learn of the savage practices of a local warlord, particularly with regard to pregnant women.

Back home in Denmark, his young son Elias (Markus Rygaard) is being bullied on account of his Swedish background until he befriends Christian (William Johnk Nielsen), a lad coming to terms with the death of his mother who's not the type to stand back and watch his friend humiliated.

The subject of how to stand up to bullying and how far one should go to put a stop to it is ripe for examination but In a Better World is just too wishy-washy liberal and literal in its approach to the subject.

Despite some fine acting, not least from William Johnk Nielsen as Christian, a boy whose demeanour hints at dark undercurrents in his character, the movie feels more like a lecture in modern morals than a fully rounded movie. And in the case of Anton, when he finally takes a stand in the African desert the consequences, or lack of them, don't stack up on any credible level, making for a serious and ultimately fatal flaw in the film's cosy, self-satisfied universe. HHHII

>ALSO RELEASED THIS WEEk The movie version of Channel 4's ratings smash The Inbetweeners (Cert 16) opens and follows in the grand tradition of British sitcoms moving to the big screen by sending its protagonists on holiday, while Spy Kids 4 -- All the Time in the World (Cert Gen) is the latest instalment in Robert Rodriguez's patchy series. We would have liked to review these for you but, as usual, distributors Entertainment didn't bother providing screenings for the Irish media.