A chance to enjoy an entertaining (if conventional) Western…
It has a habit of coming back ’atcha, does the Western – while other genres have a tendency to become moribund over time, such as the traditional musical or the traditional vampire flick, the Old West is a tradition that a variety of directors have returned to over recent years, such as with Kevin Costner’s well-received Open Range (2003) and, a decade or so previously, Clint Eastwood’s marvellous fin de siècle opus, Unforgiven (1992).
Appaloosa by Ed Harris (a great actor whose only previous directorial effort was Pollock (2000)) is the latest addition and, set in 1882 New Mexico, it follows the fate of the town of the same name, which has fallen under the control of ruthless outlaw rancher Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) and his hired hands – the town elders, realising that something must be done to stop the rot, hire new guns to take control.
Thus, Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) becomes Marshall Cole, with his lifelong friend and fellow gunslinger Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) as his deputy. Laying down the law to Bragg begins with the shooting of three of his men, but Cole wants to see justice done for the murder of his predecessor, Marshall Jack Bell (Bobby Jauregui). A former Bragg ally comes forward and swears his willingness to testify, but the situation is complicated by the arrival of mysterious widow Allison French (Renée Zellweger)…
The screenplay, by Robert Knott and Ed Harris from Robert Parker’s novel, is a tight (if not devastatingly original) study in ‘a man’s gotta do’ mores and friendship – Harris and Mortensen bond well together onscreen, even if Iron’s take on the villain seems more than a little lacking in charisma or menace. That’s to say, it’s all very well him being an educated bad guy but, given the conventionality on display elsewhere, his performance might well have benefited from a touch more pantomime excess, as with the old-time Wild West extravaganzas.
Zellweger, too, seems a touch misplaced – her character’s loyalty to her man depends entirely on which man has the upper hand but her mastery of the old refined US accent, is about as deep as her character seems to go.
So, I hear you ask, what did he like about it then? In a word, Ed – Harris has a masterful, consummate approach to his acting, one that has illuminated films as diverse as A History of Violence (2005) and The Truman Show (1998), and his approach is no different here, presenting us with a believable take on a man prepared to do the right thing, no matter what the cost. In addition, his direction is slick and well-paced, and the end result is a nostalgic, enjoyable reminder that they can still make ‘em like they used to.