If the two paradigms for American Westerns are going to be haunting and beautifully evocative recollections of an era long past (“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”) or unambitious but entertaining shoot-em-ups (“3:10 to Yuma”), put Ed Harris’ “Appaloosa” firmly in the latter category, with a few wispy suggestions of artifice lurking in the background.
It’s not a revision or a rethinking or a reexamination of the classic Western, it’s just a very watchable story about two strangers who clean up a dirty town. And if that’s what you’re looking for, that’s exactly what you’re gonna get.
Harris and Viggo Mortensen are mercenaries and best pals Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch. They ride together, banter amusingly and — if we’re going to get all post-“Brokeback” about it — Everett takes care of Virgil in an almost wifely way. They come riding into 1880s Appaloosa, New Mexico, in the hopes of liberating the town from the reign of terror of one Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), a black-hat of the deadliest persuasion who filled the town’s prior marshal with lead.
While Virgil and Everett are preparing for the big showdown with Bragg and his men, the town’s widowed organist Allison French (Renee Zellweger) sets her sights on Virgil, who seems to want to settle down in one place for once rather than go back on the trail. But Allison is no prairie angel — given that most female characters in Westerns get to be either schoolmarms or saloon gals, “Appaloosa” gives us a frankly amoral woman whose allegiance is only to herself and who is also unapologetic about her sexual appetite. (She even puts the moves on Everett at one point.)
Audiences who found “Assassination of Jesse James” to be too slow may find themselves getting impatient at times, as Harris also likes to let takes run long and to linger over the scrubbly brown New Mexico vistas. But “Jesse James” was actually trying to accomplish something besides making the audience say, “Hey look — it’s arty!” It’s not entirely clear whether “Appaloosa” can make that same claim. This film does, at least, turn its frequent shootouts into short, to-the-point bursts of violence.
Perhaps wishing not to overshadow his co-stars, Harris has directed himself into a performance so very laid-back that he occasionally fails to register. Mortensen operates in his usual framework of subtlety — watch those eyebrows — which plays well opposite the laconic Harris. Zellweger finds the meat of the character and gives the role a little more than usual, while Irons mixes his “Lion King” villain with a touch of Daniel Plainview for a memorably over-the-top villain.
“Appaloosa” will probably just ride off into the sunset without much of an impact, but it will sate your fix for horses, guns and slapping leather. You know, if you’re into that sort of thing.