“Appaloosa” contains seemingly every well-worn cliche of the Western. There are the strong, silent gunmen and the sassy woman who’s more afraid of them dying than they are themselves. There’s the amoral rancher and the good but cowed people of the town he de facto rules. There’s the fallen woman with the heart of gold, and the town fathers with easily shifted allegiances.
There’s even a barkeep who polishes his glassware in an attempt to look calm as a gunfight brews in his saloon.
None of these things makes “Appaloosa” a tired entry in an old genre, though. The cliches, like everything else in this carefully made film, are so well-executed that “Appaloosa” instead seems nothing less than iconic.
Ed Harris directed, co-wrote and stars in this tough but charming film, which is based on the novel by crime writer Robert B. Parker. Mr. Harris is Virgil Cole, a lawman-for-hire in 1882 along with his younger sidekick, Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen). The city fathers of Appaloosa, a small town in New Mexico Territory, are tired of the town being terrorized by murderous rancher Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) and call on the pair for help.
“We want our town back, and we’re ready to pay your price,” the leader (played by Timothy Spall) tells Cole and Hitch.
“We need a lot of laws to make it all legal,” Hitch responds.
Appaloosa thus is handed over to the benevolent dictators, who bring a kind of aggressive justice to the town. They manage pretty quickly and ruthlessly to rein in Bragg’s men, but Bragg himself, of course, proves tougher to tame.
Just as hard to handle is widow Allison French (Renee Zellweger). As soon as she steps off the train and into the town, Cole and Hitch are smitten. Hitch is closer to her own age, but Cole’s the top dog and Allie is the kind of pragmatic woman who gravitates toward the top dog. It works in Cole’s favor as long as he’s the top dog. With the arrival of a couple of other newcomers, though, it’s difficult to say how long Cole can maintain both his status and his life.
Mr. Harris and Mr. Mortensen were last seen on-screen together in 2005’s “A History of Violence,” also a genre film taken to another level in its mastery. This time, they’re friends rather than rivals, and the chemistry between the two is pure pleasure.
There are few words spoken between them - really, between any two characters in this film. Mr. Harris brings a quiet dignity to his role as the master whose newly found feelings may get the better of him. Mr. Mortensen, one of the finest actors working today, says more in a nod or an “Mmm-hmm” than many of his colleagues can in a long monologue. For his part, Mr. Irons seems to be channeling “There Will Be Blood’s” Daniel Day-Lewis, but with much more restraint. These are perfect performances. One can’t quite say that of Miss Zellweger’s work here, but it’s solid and the best performance she’s given in some time.
The requisite standoffs and shootouts make this one tense film, but the mood is frequently lightened with a generous dose of surprising humor. It took Mr. Harris - who directed “Pollock” - eight years to get back behind the camera, but “Appaloosa” proves the wait was more than worth it.
THREE AND A HALF STARS
RATING: R (some violence and language)
CREDITS: Directed by Ed Harris. Written by Robert Knott and Mr. Harris, based on the novel by Robert B. Parker.
RUNNING TIME: 116 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS