Appaloosa is a totally passable and — to my surprise — fun (and funny) Western movie. I'm amazed Ed Harris, the star/director/co-writer of the film, hasn't played more gunslingers, because his face was built for it. Under the shadow of a wide-brimmed hat, his skin looks believably weathered and creased, his bone structure sturdy and chiseled. By contrast, Harris's costar, Viggo Mortensen, is not what I think of when I think "cowboy." He's long and lean and hardly recognizable under a strange (but probably historically accurate) haircut and facial hair. His character drags around one of those giant long-barreled shotguns as opposed to expertly twirling a smaller one out of his holster.
The pair make a fine acting duo; they have an easy chemistry I could watch all night long. Beyond that, Appaloosa tells a well-thought-out story. But unlike Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven or last year's remake of 3:10 to Yuma, there is no new cinematic ground being broken here. For the most part, it's simply a traditional Western, which — depending on your outlook — can either be a great way to spend a night at the movies or a teensy bit disappointing. To see what I mean, just
Harris plays Virgil Cole, a man who makes a living off the lawless frontier by helping out towns overrun with criminal activity. When we first meet Virgil and his deputy, Everett Hitch (Mortensen), it's clear the two men have known each other for a while; they're the Old West dude-equivalent of BFFs. They can read each other's body language, complete each other's sentences, and are committed to having each other's backs. It's touching and pretty cute without ever being silly. Not even the charms of a new gal in town, Allie French (Renee Zellweger), can shake up the loyalty between the friends.
They arrive in Appaloosa, New Mexico, at the request of the business leaders there to help rid the town of a criminal menace named Randall Bragg (played by Jeremy Irons, sporting a strange American accent). Irons plays evil eloquently, and it suits his character well, but it's hard to get over seeing him in cowboy boots in this dusty town. Physically, he doesn't move like the others; it's hard to tell if this is inspired casting or just weird. Anyway, Virgil, in order to get the job done, declares himself the top law dog, and from there the stage is set for a showdown of some sort in a coral.
To Harris's credit, what could have been a totally predicable movie is not. Zellweger's Allie is one of the most interesting, complicated female characters I've seen in the genre, and just when you think you know the outcome of a given scene, the plot twists and turns in unexpected ways. To that end, it's a great ride. On the negative side, lots of little moments wrapped up in those twists are never really explored or given much weight. There's a moment near the beginning when all the fun cowboy stuff abruptly ends and Harris's character beats the crap out of someone for no good reason. We've warmed up to the guy only to learn he's a live wire with an ambiguous sense of justice. It's intriguing but glossed over. Digging in to his psyche is the kind of thing that could have made this movie great, but as it is, it's just a darn good story come to life by darn good actors.
Photos courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures