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)

30 Responses to “Review: Appaloosa (2008) ***”

  1. I see this on the 6th of October, and I guess it is not an issue that I have to wait. I’m not very jazzed for it, let me just tell you. And I once was, but that lasted about five minutes (when I saw a still of a red-faced, constipated looking Zellweger, I was turned off automatically).

  2. Well, Craig, I agree with all your reservations and a few more, but you are becoming a master of the shorter review as of late, an assessment which leaves out padding, and concentrates on the issues that matter most. If you continue this, you’ll be able to write more reviews. I am thinking in the same terms myself, especially since shorter pieces ar eread in their entirety by more people. Still, your long review of MAN ON WIRE, most warranted, was a masterpiece.
    I like the suggestion that the Zellweger character was a plot device and the dismissal of Irons’ performance, particularly. You really made great use of word economy with this review.

  3. I reckon I wanna see it, ain’t readin’ now.

    What was with that run of Westerns last year? Is this the only one for ’08?

  4. Excellent review. I’m not sure if I’ll see this in the movies or wait to see it on DVD. There are other things I really want to see so I’ll get to them first. I do love my Viggo though, so maybe I’ll cave.

  5. If you like Viggo Alison, you’ll want to see this one eventually. DVD would probably be fine though in my estimation.

    This is pretty much it western-wise this year Daniel. Are there any that I’ve missed?

    I’m glad you like the shorter format Sam. I’ve been trying to train myself to let a review be as long or short as it needs to be. This is especially important for movies like this that I’m not super excited by, but it also applies to minimalist movies like the Wang film that don’t leave me with much to say.

    I was pretty excited about this one initially too Nick, but it turns out it’s not anything like some of last year’s westerns. That’s not a bad thing necessarily, but I can understand folks like Sam expecting more.

  6. Also Nick, if you don’t like Zellweger, you’ll really dislike her here. She was the weakest part, and I say that as a guy who generally doesn’t mind her.

  7. I like her, just not the version of her face that I saw in the still ;)

  8. The thing is, I just don’t like Zellweger as an actress, though she somehow miraculously worked in Chicago.

    As mediocre or average as this may be, I’ll still see it because the Western needs as much support as it can get.

  9. Zellweger is going to make your eyes and ears bleed. All I’m saying.

  10. This film will probably play here for 9 months straight. Fort Smith loves its westerns, no matter the quality.

    I liked Zellwegger in Jerry Maguire and the first Bridget Jones, and I thought she was just right for the Roxie Hart part in Chicago, but other than that, she’s not been too impressive. HATED her in Cold Mountain, still can’t believe she won for a role where she seemed to be talking with walnuts stuffed in her cheeks.

    My mother-in-law reads all the Robert B. Paker novels, but I could just never get into them. The couple I tried to read just seemed a little too facile or something.

    Another great review, Craig. Not that anybody’s surprised about that.

  11. I thank you JB and my tiny little ego thanks you.

    I read several of the Spenser novels…I think it was way back when I was in high school though…but now that I think of it I might be mixing them up with the Fletch novels…yeah, I am. Nevermind. Is it weird to think aloud in a comments section of a movie blog?

    I loved the Fletch novels and there’s a movie I wouldn’t mind seeing someone else take another crack at.

  12. When I heard Zellweger was going to be in this, I thought immediately of how bad she was in “Cold Mountain.” I cannot believe anybody would hire her for another period piece.

    But, alas, Westerns are a genre I love, so I will see it.

  13. Aye, Rick on Zellweger. Nothing to compare with her performance in CHICAGO.

  14. Bang on the money JennyBee, completely.

  15. For me, she wasn’t enough to ruin it, but then I’m not predisposed against her. she might be enough to sap whatever other good will the film earns for those of you who find her to be fingernails on a chalkboard.

  16. But Rick, didn’t she snag a little golden statuette for her role in Cold Mountain? :)

    For the record, I agree. Haven’t seen this yet, but everything Craig said lines up with my initial reaction to the trailer. “Western with Viggo and Harris? AWESOME! Side romance with Zelwegger? Uh….ok, whatever.”

  17. definitely recommended to fans of Viggo.

  18. Saw this, and pretty much agree with your overall assessment, Craig. It was pretty uneven, a squandered opportunity for a great movie. No time at the moment to go deeper, but can I just say what the heck was with the music? It was awful, completely schizophrenic. One scene it’s classic (if derivative) western score, the next scene it’s got a saxophone(!) and a noirish jazz trumpet (?!?) wailing on while they’re in a Mexican border town, then it’s a spaghetti western, then it’s on to something light and funny…it was tremendously jarring and ill-considered with no binding principle, I found.

    I’d deduct a full star just for that. If you can’t afford a great composer, you don’t have to go with a bad one. No music, ala No Country, would have been a stronger choice.

  19. Sounds like I liked it a TEENY bit better than you JB, but we’re in 100% agreement on the music. I made a note about it, but left it out of my final review. Awful and anachronistic.

  20. “Instead of shaking up routine, Appaloosa depends on its characters and abundant humor to hold your interest.”

    Right, but from where I sat, it didn’t succeed. All of my annoyances are already mentioned, but you reminded me how much I hated the vocabulary thing. It’s a fine character trait but I didn’t like how Harris delivered it, and if it was meant to convey a finish-each-other’s-sentences camaraderie between Cole and Hitch, I think there were other ways to do it.

    Still, I kind of liked Irons. I wish he was still doing more on screen.

  21. Interesting you liked Irons but liked the movie less than I did. I thought he was wasted. I guess I wanted some scenery chewing.

  22. I thought Irons had very little menace and never felt like he belonged in that world. He didn’t bring much energy to it–Think of the whole middle sequence where he’s hanging around on screen with literally nothing to do–and he does almost nothing with it. I didn’t get the sense that he was a caged beast, more like that MST 3000 joke where the actors wait in a scene until their lines come around while their co-stars are talking and the voiceover says, “Three, two, one…ACT!” He was just a placeholder and didn’t seem to know what to do with himself.

    I’m tired of seeing Irons as the villain, anyway. He can do that in his sleep (was that the problem?). I’d rather see him in a light romantic romp or an action hero or something. But that’s just me. Predictable casting, not exciting.

  23. Hmm, wow, that’s a great point. Most of the time he was about as tame as Mortenson was – but it was called for in Mortenson’s character.

    Maybe he didn’t want to overplay his hand and be some spitting, wild-eyed villain?

  24. JB touches on something that makes me think it wasn’t Irons’ fault per se, it was just an underwritten part. Like whatsername, he seemed to turn up when the plot needed him. His motivation was never really very clear.

  25. Here I am talking trash about it, but yeah somehow I still kind of found it entertaining. It’s no Jesse James or even a 3:10 to Yuma, but it was likeable enough for me.

  26. I agree, Craig, but that’s also what makes me mad about it and the reason I keep thinking of ways it could have been better. It was good enough that I’m actually pissed off at the parts that missed.

  27. I know exactly what you mean. It’s one thing to enjoy a not very good throwaway guilty pleasure, but when a movie seems to promise something more but falls short, it’s irritating.

  28. I finally read your review, Craig, and enjoyed it greatly. You succinctly detail what works, what doesn’t, and why you ended up giving it a pass.

    I’ll be interested in what you think about my review at CCC. We largely agree about all the main points, but I do have the feeling I liked it more. As I said to Daniel at Getafilm, though, that may have been partly the result of expectations formed by both of you.

    I do disagree with you about Irons, though. I liked his performance, primarily for the reasons explained by Daniel, namely the unwillingness to ever even remotely go over-the-top with it.

    And for some reason, the wildly inconsistent music didn’t bother me. I don’t know… it almost seemed to give it a strangely coruscating character. Though I can see why some like Jennybee would find it awful.

  29. I liked Irons, I thought his character was poorly injected into the buddy narrative and the use of him was inconsistent at best. The last third of the movie is very uneven and this works against the standard Western buildup in the first half of the movie. Viggo is definitely the star of the show and clearly the best part of the movie. Harris is good but I never completely bought his relationship to Zellweger, which I’ll blame on chemistry as much as direction. Zellweger was completely awful and out of place. Did they hire her to get funding? Wow, talk about miscast.

    I enjoyed the movie’s central relationship (Viggo and Harris) but overall it had some pacing and narrative issues that kept it from being much better. All the same, good movie and good review.

  30. Mainly the Irons character seemed poorly written. He’d pop up when he was needed, but I was never really clear on his motivations. Not Irons’ fault.

    I would’ve liked a little scenery chewing from him though.

    I found this to be a movie I liked more when I first saw it than I did when I ultimately sat down to review it. It faded quickly and I htink it’s reflected in my less than enthusiastic review.

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