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Appaloosa   C+

New Line Cinema

Year Released: 2008
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Ed Harris
Writers: Robert Knott, Ed Harris
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Ed Harris, Renée Zellweger, Jeremy Irons, Timothy Spall, Lance Henriksen.

Review by Rob Vaux

Chemistry between co-stars only goes so far. You can slip into a zone with a fellow actor that makes every spoken word a joy, but if your story doesn't lead you anywhere interesting, then eventually people are going to notice. This is particularly true if you're also directing, for you may be more apt to indulge in the thespian give-and-take than the movie merits. So it is with Appaloosa, a not-at-all-bad Western which ultimately wanders too far astray to excuse its copious shortcomings.

Actor/director Ed Harris certainly has his ducks in a row, first by finding a leading role which suits him perfectly and then by casting Viggo Mortensen as his partner. Mortensen was born to play a cowboy like no one this side of Clint Eastwood, and the easy rapport suggested by he and Harris in A History of Violence blooms to glorious life here. He plays Everett Hitch, deputy and best bud to freelance lawman Virgil Cole (Harris). The two instantly convey a sense of long years spent watching each other's back, as they ride into the titular New Mexico town to take on corrupt rancher Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons). Cole is all stern morals and unflinching judgment, the necessities of a life spent enforcing the law at the end of a gun. Hitch, West Point educated and far more erudite, backs his partner's every play while gently correcting his pronunciation of five-dollar words. If all you need is the pair of them leaning up against the saloon porch and casually shooting the breeze, Appaloosa resolutely delivers.

It also does surprisingly well with one of its primary subplots -- the inevitable woman-as-third-wheel trope which few Westerns can resist. When Ali French (Renee Zellweger) steps off the train beneath Hitch's fascinated gaze, the shuddering pall of predictability arrives with her. At first, Appaloosa appears to present her as the threat of domesticity, driving a wedge between these frontier tough guys and rendering their big shiny guns utterly impotent. But somewhere on the way to that dreadful chestnut, Harris and his cast pull a bit of a coup. The widowed French is drawn to Cole, but her reasons run deeper than simple romance, and her effect on the two men eventually moves Appaloosa into new and unpredictable directions.

Sadly, the remainder of the film fails to follow that lead. A sense of tired familiarity runs throughout, eschewing fresh material for the safe and the shopworn. Bragg's Eastern corruption feels too pat, the periodic confrontations lift too much from better Westerns, and though the postcard landscapes are nicely shot, they fail to deliver a distinctive visual style. As a director, Harris has a good eye and he can certainly coach his cast well, but he lingers too long on them when he should be quickening the pace. Though the actors justify the attention, the story simply can't find its rhythm beneath the burden of their long, laconic conversations.

That proves fatal to the film's narrative ambitions. The source novel from Robert B. Parker provides plenty of opportunities to grab us by the throat, but Harris struggles to give key incidents the proper heft. Appaloosa never builds towards anything worth waiting for. Each scene takes place emotionally divorced from those around it -- lending a perfunctory air to what should be sharp and intense. When the plot doesn't gather steam the way it's clearly intended to, attention spans start to wander... a state which the crackerjack cast only fitfully alleviates.

Appaloosa deserves some accolades for helping to further the genre's revival. Recent onscreen Westerns have established a high benchmark for quality, and even the worst of them reveal solid expectations at their core. Harris's work here suggests nothing if not an earnest attempt to maintain those standards. He doesn't fail -- far from it -- but his creative temperament lacks the even-handedness to make this material work. A tighter structure and a greater emphasis on drama over performance would have done wonders for a film that never quite hits its target. The parts of it that work, work very well... so much so in fact that the parts which don't simply can't keep up. Too much of Appaloosa falls into the latter category to make for a satisfying experience.

Review published 09.20.2008.

IMDb | buy it at Amazon.com

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Amazon.com

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