Co-written and directed by Ed Harris from a novel by Robert B. Parker and starring Harris and Viggo Mortensen, Appaloosa is almost a throwback to the old B-westerns. It’s not a cheap film or one of low production quality, but it’s a simple, almost intimate story rather than one with the epic or mythic pretentiousness of so many modern westerns. In fact it could reasonably be described as more of a buddy picture in western garb than a true western. If you’re prepared for that, it’s an enjoyable ride, but if you’re counting on something richer, you might find Appaloosa a little thin.
Harris plays Virgil Cole, a man occupied in the “peace business” traveling from one lawless town to the next, instituting justice at the barrel of a gun. Viggo Mortensen is his partner, the 8-guage shotgun-toting Everett Hitch. A former soldier, Hitch is skilled at killing but he prefers to find a better reason to do it than war.
In New Mexico Territory they’re hired to wrest control of the burgeoning town of Appaloosa back from Jeremy Irons’ vicious cattleman Randall Bragg and his gang of rowdies. The cleanup begins routinely enough with Virgil and Everett laying down the law and quickly establishing their superiority with guns, but the appearance of Renée Zellweger’s Allison French predictably upsets the balance. She’s a mystery woman, well dressed and refined but stuck in the middle of nowhere with only a dollar in her pocket. Virgil takes a liking to her, but her attempts to civilize him run counter to his violent profession.
With a few minor variations, this is the stuff of dozens of westerns that have come before, but Harris is not trying to reinvent the genre. Instead of shaking up routine, Appaloosa depends on its characters and abundant humor to hold your interest. Luckily, Harris and Mortensen are a solid pair and they bring considerable chemistry to their partnership and they have a nice knack with the humor and sharp dialogue. Harris’ Virgil is a man of words, but limited vocabulary. He’s as quick with a remark as he is with his gun and his temper. Mortensen’s Everett is Virgil’s shadow, protector and to an extent his guiding hand. He finishes the man’s sentences, keeps him from letting his temper get the better of him and always seems to be nearby with an 8-gauge over his shoulder.
The two swagger into town with the confidence of two cool customers who know they’re a little bit smarter than everyone around them and just a little bit quicker with their guns if need be. They also have an edge in that they trust each other completely in a lawless, untrustworthy world. The question is whether their bond is strong enough to survive Ms. French. In scenarios like this, women always spell trouble and you can tell by the way Virgil looks at her the first time they meet that he’s in for it.
Unfortunately, Allison isn’t a very interesting character. She’s a convenient plot complication rather than a flesh and blood character. A couple of attempts are made to fill her out. There’s an interesting avenue about the lot of women in the Old West, but it’s mainly unexplored. She’s simply around when the plot needs a twist and she’s kind of annoying. Zellweger has zero chemistry with either of the two leads and she feels as out of place as the character herself.
Equally unsuccessful is the surprisingly slack Jeremy Irons as the villain. He’s an actor who can chew a little scenery and such a turn would’ve given Appaloosa some welcome juice, but he’s dead on arrival. His character is vaguely defined and motivated and Irons doesn’t do much to make him compelling or especially frightening.
In the end, Appaloosa isn’t really about the side characters. It’s about the relationship between the two leads. Of course, had the other characters been more sharply drawn, this could’ve been a great movie instead of just a good one. As it is, it’s a minor key western buoyed by a welcome vein of humor. Though its weaknesses keep it from ranking among the classics of the genre, the two likeable performances by Harris and Mortensen, some sharp dialogue, a plot that makes up for its modesty by avoiding predictability and a lean running time combine for an enjoyable if unspectacular entertainment.
Appaloosa. USA 2008. Directed by Ed Harris. Written by Ed Harris and Robert Knott from the novel by Robert B. Parker. Cinematography by Dean Semler. Edited by Kathryn Himoff. Music score by Jeff Beal. Starring Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Renée Zellweger, Jeremy Irons, Timothy Spall and Lance Henriksen. 1 hour 56 minutes. MPAA rated for some violence and language. 3 stars (out of 5)