For the first time since Pollock, Ed Harris steps behind the camera again to direct an old-fashioned Western in the mold of 3:10 to Yuma and Open Range. With Appaloosa, Harris is clearly shooting for the timeless quality of the genre, the one that makes it feel like this film could have been made 20, 40, or even 60 years earlier without changing much of the production at all. Oddly, the two things that would have been different back then are both the biggest strength and weakness of Appaloosa, respectively. In terms of strength, not many Western directors have assembled a cast as talented as Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Jeremy Irons, Lance Henriksen, and Renee Zellweger. In terms of weakness, it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’ve seen Appaloosa before. We’ve “been there, shot that” with nearly every element of this story from the overly flirtatious woman to the partner in stirrups who's our hero’s true backup. Appaloosa is a familiar story told well enough that it’s worth seeing, but won’t truly linger for any but the most diehard Western fanatic.
Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen give typically flawless performances as a pair of lawmen for hire, respectively named Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch (a pair of great Western names from an author, Robert Parker, who knows the genre inside and out). When your town gets taken over by ruffians, you call in Virgil and Everett, two quiet, loyal, and determined men, to restore order. Two people throw the relatively rigid lives of these life-long partners and friends into disarray – Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) and Allison French (Renee Zellweger). Bragg has put the people of the town of Appaloosa into a state of fear, refusing acknowledge that the law applies to him or his men and opening the film by shooting the town Marshall. When Virgil and Everett get to Appaloosa, they too take the law into their own hands, but with the blessing of the townspeople and in an effort to take down the nefarious Bragg. Enter Allison French, a woman fresh off the train who happens to catch Virgil’s lonely eye. As the tagline for Appaloosa says, “Feelings get you killed.”
It could be argued that Appaloosa doesn’t do quite enough to justify its existence. It’s a tough movie to review. It’s one of those films that doesn’t really do anything wrong, so there’s not a lot to pick on, but is “not doing anything wrong” enough? If you’re comfortable with the idea of a well-done Western, you’ll enjoy Appaloosa, but it certainly doesn’t strive for anything approaching Assassination of Jesse James or Unforgiven. Harris has crafted as old-fashioned a Western as they come, a film that could easily have been made decades ago. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with Appaloosa, but it doesn’t have the kick or the punch to really stick with the audience beyond the closing credits. Zellweger seems a bit miscast (and she really needs to prove soon that she can do a piece without a costume or an accent, especially when you consider that her last non-period, non-Bridget Jones movie role was her small part in 2002’s White Oleander), but her relative weakness is easily offset by the consistently great Harris and Mortensen and excellent supporting work by Irons. When the movie focuses on the friendship between the two morally rigid men at its center, it really succeeds, simply because these are two of the best actors working today. It’s the other stuff – the action and the romance – that feels a bit derivative. See Appaloosa if you’re a fan of the genre or as an acting exercise for the great Harris and Mortensen, but don’t be disappointed that you don’t get much more than that.
Rating: THREE BONES
Reviewed by Brian Tallerico (MovieRetriever.com Film Critic)
Release Date: October 3rd, 2008
Starring: Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Renee Zellweger, Lance Henriksen, Timothy Spall, and Jeremy Irons
Director: Ed Harris
Writer: Robert Knott & Ed Harris