"The Missing" is Ron Howard's attempt to channel the "The Searchers," but what he achieves in this Western kidnap thriller is closer to "The Elizabeth Smart Story": cloying and clunky, with the outcome never in doubt.
Howard, who won an Oscar for directing 2001's "A Beautiful Mind," brings nothing new or exciting to the genres he pools together. "The Missing" is contrived and obvious, with a belabored father-daughter relationship serving as the backdrop for a perfunctory rescue mission.
It would take a far more inventive director than Howard to wrestle something interesting out of Ken Kaufman's meager script, adapted from Thomas Eidson's novel "The Last Ride." The story feels arbitrary, giving us numerous examples of how creepy the villain is but never hinting at his motivations - even though as an American Indian in 1885 New Mexico, he should have plenty.
A ham-fisted scene with Val Kilmer as an Army general makes the point that the U.S. government was doing horrible things to Indians at that time and place, but the villains are presented as simply evil, apart from any social or historical context.
As the nasty mystic Chidin, Eric Schweig chews the scenery behind makeup that makes his face look scarred and pockmarked. He's the Snidely Whiplash of Indians; if he had a mustache, he would certainly twirl it. The action begins when Chidin kidnaps the teenage daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) of cattle rancher Maggie Gilkeson (Cate Blanchett), intending to sell the girl into either marriage or prostitution (it's never clear) in Mexico.
Before the kidnapping, Howard clumsily introduces Maggie, her boyfriend (Aaron Eckhart), her two daughters (Jenna Boyd plays the younger one, Dot), and her estranged father, Samuel Jones (Tommy Lee Jones), who gets a chilly reception when he shows up uninvited at Maggie's home. It seems Samuel abandoned his family when Maggie was a girl to live with the Apaches.
Fending for herself since childhood, Maggie has become something of a super-frontierswoman: rancher, healer (physician, surgeon and dentist rolled into one), single mother, devout Christian and expert marksman. She scrapes out a good living for her daughters, but Lily, the future kidnap victim, isn't grateful. Pining for technology and city life, she laments, "I was born into the wrong family, I swear to God I was!"
Are we in the Old West or "The O.C."?
Maggie's boyfriend and hired hand are killed during the kidnapping, and neither the local sheriff nor the Army offer any assistance, reducing her to ask ol' dad to help track the bad guys. Howard will occasionally stop their journey dead in its tracks for some forced "bonding" between father and daughter.
While Howard includes enough grisly images to get an R rating for violence, he never creates a true sense of danger. We know there are lines that won't be crossed, and we know who will live and who will die heroically and photogenically. Howard telegraphs the story with the help of a simplistic, manipulative score by James Horner.
Howard also avoids stirring any religious controversy, giving equal credence to Maggie's Christian faith and the Indians' mysticism. When Chidin gets a hold of Maggie's hairbrush and uses the hair from it to hex her, she's saved by what may be history's first interfaith exorcism.
Blanchett is a force of nature, but relatively few directors have taken advantage of her boundless energy (Barry Levinson in the underrated "Bandits" was a notable exception). Just as she did in "The Gift" and "Charlotte Gray," she devotes herself fully to a director's misbegotten vision.
Never an innovator, Howard plays by the contemporary Hollywood rules that say female action heroes can be just as indestructible - and uninteresting - as male ones.
Jones provides a moment or two of quiet levity but frequently veers close to parody. The writers of "Scary Movie 4" will hardly be able to contain themselves as they watch Jones chanting Apache prayers. But then "The Missing" likely won't be popular enough to spoof.
"The Missing," a Columbia Pictures release, is rated R for violence. Running time: 130 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.
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