Unlike its immediate predecessors, which have retooled (Unforgiven), remade (3:10 To Yuma
), revered (Open Range), and re-imagined (The Proposition
) the genre, Ed Harris
' Appaloosa is simply content being a good Western. It's unapologetic of its formula, unwilling to waver in its characterizations, and unhurried in its pace. It tells a story you've heard before -- more than once -- but it handles its business with rugged aplomb. That ought to be enough. But for some reason, it isn't.
It's 1882, and the intimidating landowner Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons
) casts a long shadow over the New Mexico town of Appaloosa. With three booming gun blasts, the film establishes Bragg’s cold-blooded disdain for authority and utter lack of morals. Man, how I wish Appaloosa gave this character more time to breathe, develop, and wreck proper havoc. Article continues below
Almost immediately, we're introduced to Virgil Cole (Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen
), peacekeepers hired by Appaloosa's leaders to clean up the town and -- by the grace of God -- bring Bragg to justice. Virgil draws his line in the sand. Bragg crosses it. We wait for justice to prevail.
Virgil and Everett are supposed to be Appaloosa’s answer to Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, with a dash of rage issues and minus the flashy personalities. Harris and Mortensen have chemistry, but charisma isn't in either actor's stable. Screenwriter Robert Knott does cull an interesting idea from Robert B. Parker's source novel, portraying Virgil as a city Marshall whose temper and stubborn sense of duty could make him a threat to the townsfolk he’s sworn to protect. I wish that were explored further.
As Appaloosa trots through its cycles, an emotional twister by the name of Allison French (Renée Zellweger
) blows into town. A smitten Virgil hires her (on the spot) to play piano at the town's only hotel, and the two fall in and out of love as a difficult triangle forms between Allie, Virgil, and Everett. Through no fault of Zellweger's, Allie ends up being the least predictable and most broadly drawn player in this poker hand. Harris needs her for a handful of scenes, but her actions don't connect. I had a hard time understanding Allie's motivations most of the time. But then again, so does Virgil, so perhaps that's the point.
Overwhelmingly, though, Appaloosa lacks a deeper meaning. You can force political subtext into the story, which gratifies the use of violence by law-abiding characters to curb a violent bully. You can contemplate why Harris clads Virgil, his flawed hero, from head to toe in black. But you'll be putting more meaning into the film's action than I believe Harris intends.
As the last character gallops off into the sunset (of course), Harris leaves Appaloosa stuck in a limbo: It's too authentic to be populist, yet too familiar to transcend the genre and hang with the bona fide classics.