Written by: Big Ross, CC2K Staff Writer
This paint-by-numbers Western is no masterpiece but still comes out looking pretty good.
Coming out of the theater from Appaloosa, it seemed pretty obvious to me the Ed Harris really loves Westerns, and if I didn't know that the film was based on the novel of the same name by Robert B. Parker, I would have thought Harris simply put all of his favorite Western movie elements in a blender and hit "Liquefy". The result might look a little dubious upon initial inspection, but comes out tasting surprisingly good.
There are certain things every great Western has, things we've come to expect from films of this genre. I'm no expert but I've seen enough that I can recognize these when they're on screen. In Spaghetti Westerns in particular there's the villain, usually presented as either a robber baron type (The Savage Guns, Shane, Pale Rider) or a vicious, skilled, fugitive gunslinger (Shane, Pale Rider, various entries in The Dollars Trilogy). There is, of course, the hero who in the early Westerns starring John Wayne and such was honorable through and through. In the later Spaghetti Westerns, particularly those of Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood, the hero took on more of a morally ambiguous nature but was almost always more of a good guy than the villain, though the exception to the rule here could be Unforgiven. Appaloosa is no different. In the opening scene we are introduced to Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), a man who is equal parts robber baron and gunslinger and unequivocally bad. The marshal of Appaloosa, a small town in the New Mexico territory, and his two deputies go to Bragg's home on the outskirts of town to serve an arrest warrant for two of Bragg's men wanted for the murder of a man in Chicago and the rape and murder of his wife. Bragg refuses to cooperate, and when the marshal attempts to take the men by force Bragg guns all three down. In the very next scene we're introduced to our heroes, a rather curious duo of peacekeepers for hire: Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen). Cole and Hitch are in fact hired by the town leaders to deal with Bragg and bring the law and order that Appaloosa so desperately needs.
As you can see, there's nothing new here. Appaloosa possesses the same elements, follows the same conventions that we've seen so many times before. You can probably guess what happens next. Some of Bragg's men go into town behaving in their usual bad way, Cole and Hitch introduce them to the new laws in town, and a shoot-out ensues. Bragg protests the killing of his men, attempts to reason with (read: buy off) Cole and Hitch but gets rebuffed. Cole and Hitch manage to arrest Bragg in a scene that is reminiscent of of the outhouse scene in Unforgiven, and a stand-off between Cole and Bragg's henchmen ensues outside the marshal's office that echoes a scene in Wyatt Earp. I won't go into all of the details and give away the ending, but then again as I said, there's nothing really new and original here. A scene with a train robbery (of sorts), a climactic shoot-out, even some violent Indians (that would be Native Americans by today's PC standards) show up. There seem to be a few missteps along the way, particularly in the pacing of the plot. For example, Ally French (Renee Zellweger) is introduced soon after Cole and Hitch arrive in Appaloosa, and immediately upon meeting Cole the sparks fly. In what might actually be the very next scene Ally, Cole, and Hitch are sharing a drink at the local saloon, Ally and Cole engaging in some playful flirting. When Ally's teasing goes too far, Cole apparently takes out his offense on one of Bragg's henchman. Very soon after we see the two from Hitch's point of view, as they share their first kiss, and the scene immediately following we share in Hitch's amusement as he encounters Cole and Ally on the morning after they consumate their relationship. The point I'm trying to make is things move at a jarringly fast past. Cole and Ally go from total strangers to picking out drapes for their new home (literally) in a few minutes of run time and what seems to be a matter of days (being generous). Yet at other times Harris slows things to snail's pace, particularly when Hitch and Cole are onscreen together. I'm no film student, but there's something about the pacing that seemed. . .well, off.
I've heard soundbites calling Appaloosa the best Western since Unforgiven, which of course invites comparison to Unforgiven, and I can tell you, this is no Unforgiven. Part of what makes that movie so good is how it takes the Western movie conventions and turns them on their head, its realistic portrayal of gunfights, the fear that precedes them and the guilt that follows in their wake. Take this great scene, as just one example:
Fuck, I almost forgot how good this movie is. Appaloosa attempts to walk the line between traditional Spaghetti Western and post-Unforgiven Western, and while the result is mostly successful it's hard to attribute anything in the way of greatness to it. Ed Harris does a solid job behind the camera and solid performances are given all around. It's a solid film and entertaining, and that's about it. If you're going to the multiplex this weekend and enjoy Westerns, check out Appaloosa. If you want to watch a truly great Western, watch Unforgiven.