Appaloosa – Review

Another year, another mediocre Western

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Director: Ed Harris
Notable Cast:
Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Renee Zellwegger, Jeremy Irons

Appaloosa is an unorthodox, unconventional and altogether different take on the Western. That doesn’t necessarily mean its any good, though, as flashes of brilliance from actor/director/writer Ed Harris keep the film from falling into the bottom of the cesspool that the modern Western has become. It has an intriguing premise, though.

Virgil (Harris) and Everett (Viggo Mortensen) are killers for hire, hired from town to town to enforce the law in places that need it desperately. Going to Appaloosa, they encounter a ruffian (Jeremy Irons) and his ranch-hands who are out of control and killed the last City Marshall. After an initial confrontation that leaves three dead at the hands of Virgil and Everett, it turns into a game between both sides to win effective control of the town of Appaloosa. Throw in Virgil’s affections of a woman (Renee Zellwegger) who may not be the most faithful and you have the beginnings of a great Western. The problem is in the execution, or the lack thereof.

From the trailers, one would expect an action filled romp about a couple of lawmen trying to do their jobs against a tidal wave of opposition. The problem is that Appaloosa has moments of action, but mainly meanders a lot with lazy pieces. The film clicks in its action sequences, the few ones it has, but mainly this is a film of talking and “angst” that really doesn’t click. The film is trying to mesh the action qualities of the more traditional western with the big, epic storyline of a costume drama. It works about as effectively as meshing the major westerns of 2007, 3:10 to Yuma and The Assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford and meshing the effectiveness of the former with the meandering of the latter.

Harris, who pulls triple duty as the film’s director as well as having adapted the film from the novel of the same name on top of starring alongside Mortensen, manages to make for a formidable presence on the screen. This is his film and the film revolves around his character arc then anything else. He’s an old gun hand, who has killed many men for years, who yearns to settle down and stop killing for money. Anna (Zellwegger) represents his way out, a beautiful woman who loves him for being him and wants him to settle down. Everett has a similar arc, a man who has been in the same position (Virgil’s sidekick) and wants to move on for his own adventure, and it’s treated fairly well by Harris the director.

Both are flawed killers who are eminently likeable but still will never be considered good men. Harris understands this notion and doesn’t try and portray them as anything but the sort of men they truly are. They do bad things to bad people for money, and the notion of justice, but this isn’t about two good men establishing the law. They seem to revel in the killing, not blinking an eye or regretting it at all. They’re mercenaries in the turn of the century New Mexico, soldiers of fortune in a bygone era, and Harris doesn’t glorify or denigrate them. They are simply men, and it’s an interesting take for a genre that generally tends to make the era mythic in many aspects.

Harris and Mortensen also have plenty of chemistry with one another. Already having worked together in A History of Violence, the two mesh together and the chemistry is superb. These are two veteran actors who have Oscar nominations, so it’s not surprising, but they work together in a way that gives them instant credibility. They move together, act together, and talk to one another in ways old friends and colleagues do. The gunfights are where they shine; the two do certain things in how they gesture and how they move that only comes with time and experience. It gives the film the sort of credibility it needs in the action department.

The problems begin when there’s no action to begin. The film tries to unravel like a big epic western like The Searchers but doesn’t have that sort of storyline to match. There’s something there about two men whose lives are in need of a change but Harris just doesn’t quite bring it out. There’s not enough story to cover what the film is trying to accomplish, as it has about 20-30 minutes of running time that doesn’t add into the story. At 90 minutes, the film would be a much smoother and crisper film. At almost two hours, its bloated and unimaginative at times.

Appaloosa is a valiant effort, and the gunfights are worth the cost of admission alone, but it just doesn’t fire on all cylinders. For fans of the genre it’s a disappointment, as the film reaches higher depths than Jesse James did last year but has many of the same failings.


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