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An Uninspired, Conventional Western

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

After the revisionist Westerns of the 70s ran their course, it wasn’t until Clint Eastwood’s 1992 Oscar-winning Western, Unforgiven, that Hollywood began to take the genre seriously. A few misfires, however, left the genre moribund. Last year, however, saw the release of two Westerns, 3:10 to Yuma, a remake of the 1957 film starring Christian Bale and Russell Crowe, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, an adaptation of Ron Hansen’s novel starring Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck. While 3:10 to Yuma did better than the Jesse James film commercially, both were well received by critics. Directed, starring and adapted by Ed Harris (Pollack) from crime writer Robert B. Parker’s (Spencer for Hire) novel of the same name, Appaloosa is the latest attempt to revitalize the genre.

Appaloosa follows Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen), longtime friends and self-described “gun men” as they search for work as lawmen in 1880s New Mexico. They offer their services as marshal and deputy, respectively, to any town willing to cover their salaries and follow their rules (in effect, abdicating law-making to Cole and Hitch). After Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), a rancher with New York ties, guns down Appaloosa’s marshal, Jack Bell (Robert Jauregui), and his two deputies, the town’s elders turn to Cole and Hitch to clean up Appaloosa and bring Bragg to justice. The arrival of Mrs. Alison French (Renée Zellweger), an impoverished widow, in Appaloosa, complicates matters for Cole and Hitch. Cole shows immediate interest in Alison, but Alison’s true feelings prove elusive.

Appaloosa borrows heavily from several highly regarded Westerns, including My Darling Clementine, John Ford’s take on the Wyatt Earp myth directed, Ford’s Rio Bravo, a Western centered on an extended siege of a local jail, Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven and the central character’s desire to leave gun-fighting behind for domesticity, and Edward Dmytryk’s Warlock, a psychological Western centered on the twisted relationship between an itinerant lawman (Henry Fonda) and his best friend (Anthony Quinn). Appaloosa’s languid, casual pacing, however, is closer to the revisionist “art westerns” of the early seventies (e.g., Walter Hill’s The Long Riders, Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller) and last year’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

It’s that often excruciatingly slow pacing that ultimately makes Appaloosa unsatisfying. The central conflict between Cole and Bragg takes close to two hours to resolve, but it disappears for long stretches of time, focusing at first on Cole and Hitch’s verbal exchanges, all of them laconic, and Cole and Alison’s romantic relationships. A man of seemingly few words bent on self-improvement, the older Cole looks to Hitch for romantic advice. It’s certainly one way Appaloosa distinguishes itself from previous Westerns. The focus on relationships and dialogues leaves little room for gunplay. When Cole and Hitch remove their guns from their holsters (Hitch actually favors an eight-gauge shotgun). The gunfights in Appaloosa are brutal, bloody, and brief. What the gunplay isn’t, though, is dramatically or emotionally satisfying.

As an actor directing actors, Harris acquits himself well. Appaloosa is at its best when the focus is on the easy chemistry between Harris and Mortensen. The same can’t be said for a badly miscast Renée Zellweger in, to be fair, an underwritten role. She has little onscreen chemistry with either Harris or Mortensen, which in turn make the romantic entanglements that run through Appaloosa almost impossible to care about. With a different actress as French, tighter, less self-indulgent pacing, and a slimmed-down ending, Appaloosa had the potential to become a worthy addition to the genre. As it is, Harris seemed content to pay homage to Appaloosa’s genre predecessors without adding anything new.