“Appaloosa” is the kind of movie that you’ll want to like more than you’ll actually like it. There is a certain charm in its deliberate pace at first – though the first ten minutes will lead you to believe this is the Western version of “Shoot ‘em Up” – but it is not long before deliberate turns into languid, and the story isn’t compelling enough to justify the pacing.
Set in the late 1880s, the town of Appaloosa is unofficially run by a lawless rancher named Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), who has killed the town Marshall after he tried to arrest two of Bragg’s men for rape and murder. The town lawmakers send out a request for assistance in establishing peace in the town, and their request is met by Marshall Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and his partner Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortenson). Virgil assumes supreme authority over the town, and beats down any member of Bragg’s posse that so much as swears in his presence. Virgil loses his eye on the prize, though, when the fetching and single Allison French (Renée Zellweger) arrives in town. The two hit it off rather quickly – much to Everett’s dismay, on a number of levels – and their relationship is leveraged to the hilt when Virgil scores a conviction against Bragg for the death of the former Marshall.
Ed Harris actually does a fine job directing the proceedings, at least from a visual and acting standpoint; he and Mortenson have great chemistry, and he wisely keeps the edits to a minimum. The problem is that he didn’t approach the scenes with a sense of urgency. He has the right idea in allowing the movie to breathe, but the story can’t support the space that he provides it. Zellweger’s character proves to be the biggest problem. She complicates everything, but she’s far from complicated. (Kanye West wouldn’t say that she’s a gold digger, in other words.) You wonder why Virgil would bother doing half of the things he does for her.
The other problem is the change of fortune with Irons’ character. Those kinds of things surely happened back then, but Harris was mistaken if he thought it would carry some sense of dread or hopelessness here. If anything, it feels a little cartoonish and underdeveloped, and for a movie that feels a good 30 minutes longer than it actually is, underdeveloped is a bad, bad thing.
Ed Harris surely has it in him to make a good Western, but “Appaloosa” isn’t it. Westerns are supposed to be gritty, mean and, pardon the reference, unforgiving. Everything here is too polite, even the killing and the lying. If you want a good, recently made Western, rent last year’s remake of “3:10 to Yuma” instead.(2.5 / 5)
This originally ran October 3, 2008 on Bullz-Eye.com.