Appaloosa is in the grip of bully boy rancher Randall Bragg (Irons), who finally oversteps the mark when the latest Marshall and his deputies are killed in cold blood. The townsfolk decide enough is enough and hire no nonsense travelling lawmen Virgil Cole (Harris) and his sidekick Everett Hitch (Mortensen) to protect and serve the town. Ruling with a rod of iron, Cole & Hitch start to bring order to Appaloosa, but the arrival in town of pretty Allie French (Zellweger) causes quite a stir between the two men. Bad timing too since the guys are trying to get Bragg to his rightful execution.
In the modern era the Western has been the hardest genre for film makers to tackle. You can probably count on one hand the number of great or agreeable ones that have surfaced post Costner and Eastwood's efforts of 1990 and 1992 respectively. Enter Ed Harris, who undaunted by the long odds of getting a Western to be successful; and suffering worrying overtures from his backers at New Line Cinema, got Appaloosa made. Well made as it happens.
Since the story itself is etched like the Wyatt Earp legend, there's really no fresh perspective on offer here. In fact, anyone familiar with Edward Dmytryk's excellent Warlock from 1959 will feel some narrative déjà vu. But Appaloosa does have strong performances and lush landscapes to see it successfully home. Slotting in a good helping of action, romance and humour also goes some way to making Harris' movie a worthy modern day Oater. True, the cliche's are many, but Harris wasn't after revisionism, he wanted (and got) old fashioned Oater values. A film that follows those old beloved B movie Western conventions, but one that still retains a topical criminal thread.
The best reward in the film comes from spending time with Harris & Mortensen. Their characters are nicely drawn and not over cooked by the script. Cole & Hitch are devoted to each other, lots of straight love and respect exists between the two men. Their bond is believably brought to life by Harris & Mortensen, who formed a friendship when making A History Of Violence for David Cronenberg in 2005. Zellweger and Irons too are not without high merit value. She (stepping in when Diane Lane walked over delays), is pleasing and captivates in what is the critical glue role. While he is dandy dastardly supreme, a well spoken villain of much intelligence and crafty as a cat.
Appaloosa is a subtle film, both in story and as a technical production. Beal's score is unobtrusive, while Semler's photography manages to deliver that old fashioned feel that Harris was after (the low lighting for the interiors is particularly on the money) . Harris' direction is smooth and unhurried in pace, with the odd inspired bit thrown in for good measure (check out the up-tilt camera work during a train on a bridge sequence). While the production design can't be faulted. All that and you got the likes of Henriksen and Timothy Spall in the support cast too. A lovely film that is as tight as the friendship at its core. 7.5/10
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