Tormented by the villainous Randall Bragg (Irons), Appaloosas elders turn to roving lawmen Virgil Cole (Harris) and Everett Hitch (Mortensen) to bring justice to their streets. Neither cowboy, however, counted on wily widow Allison French (Zellwegger) ar
And so the western stutters on, jump-started by rarefied flourishes like last year’s brooding Jesse James epic or hyperactive shoot ‘em up 3.10 To Yuma. Now Ed Harris has turned in a sturdy adaptation of Robert B. Parker’s novel, itself a story tethered to the Wyatt Earp legend. You can see the draw, with actors and directors basking in the dress-up thrills of Hollywood tradition while Harris, in particular, must have savoured the ironic resonance of peacekeepers upholding the law with a rifle. “Killing is sometimes a by-product,” growls Harris’ Virgil Cole, the uncompromising sheriff-for-hire and Earp-alike fresh arrived with his dutiful sidekick Everett Hitch (Mortensen), a similarly preened if less tubercular vision of Doc Holliday.
Their relationship is finely etched by expert performances, a mutual devotion built on few words, but the simpatico skills necessary for cleaning up the hives of scum and villainy scattered along the frontier such as Deadwood-alike Appaloosa where Jeremy Irons’ smarty-pants bad hat has been shooting local law-enforcers with impunity. If leisurely and limited by budget, the film sets about a gutsy collection of brawls, gunfights, and getaways, even a run-in with native locals, to spell out its celebration of John Ford’s tall-tales rather than troubling Unforgiven’s revisionist insight too greatly. A vicious barroom outburst hints at the sociopath lurking beneath Cole’s implacable moral veneer, but the idea is soon shuffled beneath wry homages to Rio Bravo or Winchester 73.
Harris has trouble sustaining tension: the film keeps opting for humour when the going gets tough, but Appaloosa has a handsome, hardened exterior. By luck or judgement, the savage gusts of dusty wind become a running motif to remind us it takes a thick skin to stick it out in the backwaters of the Old West. It’s a pure male fantasy of phallic six-shooters, wide brims, and gruff, unsentimental dialogue fuelled by the sour jolt of a whisky shot: that is until Renee Zellwegger’s pretty widow steps off a train and straight between the boys.
Where masculine relations are as dependable as rock (even the bad guys’ murderous ethics remain unwavering), females are as changeable as that sandpaper wind. Forget trigger-happy desperadoes, Zellwegger’s duplicitous Ali is the force neither man can truly contend with. She’s the most interesting character — an amoral survivor in a field of heroes. Clinging onto the biggest gun, whatever the colour of his hat, may be the smartest play in town.
Hardly a fresh perspective on genre traditions, its still got the performances and glorious landscapes to win you over.