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Viggo Mortensen and Ed Harris star with Academy Award winner Renée Zellweger as two gunmen tracking an escaped murderer and a beautiful, dangerous widow with an agenda of her own whose paths collide in the lawless western town of Appaloosa. When Virgil Cole (Harris--A History of Violence) and Everett Hitch (Mortensen--A History of Violence, The Lord of the Rings films) arrive in Appaloosa, they find a small, dusty town suffering at the hands of a renegade rancher with so little regard for the law that he has taken supplies, horse and women for his own and left the city marshal and one of his deputies for dead. Cole and Hitch, itinerant lawmen, are used to cleaning up after opportunistic thieves, but this time they find an unusually wily adversary--one who raises the stakes not by playing with the rules, but with emotions.]]>
The Western has been an endangered species, on and off, for something like 40 years now. Welcome to Appaloosa, Ed Harris's film of the Robert B. Parker novel--first because it exists at all, but even more because Harris as star, director, and co-screenwriter (with Robert Knott) has managed to bring it to the screen with no hint of fuss or strain, as if the making of no-nonsense, copiously pleasurable Westerns were still something Hollywood did with regularity. Harris plays Virgil Cole, one of those ace gunfighter-lawmen whose name need only be mentioned to make a saloon go still. Cole and his shotgun-toting partner Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) accept a commission to enforce law and order in the New Mexico town of Appaloosa. That basically means protect it from rapacious rancher Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons, looking right at home on the range), who murdered the previous town marshal like swatting a fly. Life becomes complicated when, about the time Bragg has been jailed to await trial, a fancy-dressing piano player calling herself Mrs. French (Renée Zellweger) steps down off the train. Cole commences to have feelings, and as he ruefully reminds Hitch, "Feelin's can get ya killed."
In his second directorial effort (following the 2000 biopic Pollock), Harris takes his cue from novelist Parker's often deadpan-comic touch, allowing action and character to accumulate in accordance with an overall eccentric rhythm. (The film's main disappointment is that it would benefit from more running time to allow things to stew a bit longer, especially in the second half.) The character work is choice, from the moment Tom Bower, James Gammon, and Timothy Spall step into view as Appaloosa's civic leaders; the director's father Bob Harris contributes a cameo as a mellifluous-tongued circuit judge, and an age-thickened Lance Henriksen turns up midfilm as gunman Ring Shelton, trailing affability and menace. In collaboration with Dances With Wolves cameraman Dean Semler, Harris sets up shots and scenes in such a way that we often see into and out of Appaloosa's various buildings simultaneously, to excellent dramatic and atmospheric effect, and there's a thrillingly vertical dynamics to a scene involving a train at an isolated water stop. The action is lethal when it needs to be, but never dwelt upon. "That was over quick," Hitch observes after one gun battle. Cole's response says it all: "Everybody could shoot." --Richard T. Jameson
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They get a break in the case when a young former hand of Bragg's agrees to testify. That happens about the time when the widow, Allie French (Renee Zellweger) comes in on the train.
Allie complicates matters a lot. As Hitch so eloquently puts it, "she wants to be with the herd stallion and there can only be one of those at a time." Cole, who claims to not have feelings, actually does care for French. She's not like any woman he's ever been with, she's clean, she's got good manners, etc.
"Appaloosa" has all the elements of a great Western, a little romance, some realistic gun play, excellent characterization, great scenery (principal film site Austin, Texas) and the typical western sense of humor. For example, when a gun battle gets both men injured, Hitch says, "That was quick." Cole's response, "Yeah, everybody could shoot."
Clearly, Harris and Mortensen had a lot of fun making this film. These two are friends in real life and this project was a labor of love for Harris who said in an interview that he's a fan of the author of "Appaloosa," Robert Parker. He usually reads the detective novels, but picked up the Western because he liked the cover and that's how the movie came to be.
If you enjoyed "Pale Rider" and "Unforgiven," this is a film you'll probably want to see. The "R" rating is for a little language, small nudity, and violence, but both my husband and I have seen a lot worse on broadcast television.
Rebecca Kyle, October 2008
Here the stories of Warlock and Appaloosa diverge. Warlock makes great use of the idea that fighting outlaws with mercenaries is a morally questionable solution, while Appaloosa features only one scene that ponders the question, even though the setup seems tailor-made for further conflict. Harris' character, Virgil, has been made uncomfortable and embarrassed by a conversation with his romantic interest (played by Renee Zellwegger), so he takes it out on some workers having a drink at the bar. Though drunk, they are doing no harm, and Harris' explosive temper and sense of impunity are first exhibited as he viciously pummels one of them before being restrained by Viggo's character (Everett). One of the town's officials questions this behavior, but beyond that it is never addressed again.
Other story similarities include a confrontation at the jailhouse (though the specifics of the scene were more reminiscent of one in Rio Bravo), a love interest that may lead to the retirement of one of the characters and the dissolution of their partnership, a final shoot-out that ends the partnership and that the title of each movie is simply the name of the town in which the action takes place.
Beyond those the story plays out in a very different fashion. There is no character equivalent in Appaloosa to Richard Widmark's outlaw-turned-lawman, Everett doesn't have any of the shadiness that Anthony Quinn's "Doc Holiday" had, and there is no betrayal among the old friends. The romantic interest also plays out very differently in Appaloosa.
Overall, the story is good, but there did seem to be a few too many Acts. I didn't mind that much, because I enjoyed all the possibly extraneous scenes, but it did feel a little long, a little less tight, even though the movie ran just under two hours. And there was one bone-headed decision that you see coming from a mile away. If you're a smart guy who has been cleaning out towns of bad guys for years now, what's the dumbest thing you can do? Very publicly fall in love with a girl who now lives in the town. I said out loud "liability and leverage" as soon as I saw Virgil go after her.
Other good points: Harris demonstrates a talent for writing (and delivering) comfortable, funny, and natural sounding dialogue. (A friend of mine said the dialogue at the beginning was bad, but I don't remember.) The relationship between Everett and Virgil is great. They effectively demonstrate respect, loyalty and love in subtle believable ways. Renee Zellwegger's character surprises you several times and turns out to be as interesting as the two leads. Irons' character doesn't have much substance to him other than "I'm a jerk," but he does have some good moments of interaction with the Virgil and Everett.
Harris, along with his DP, has a good eye for the scenery. Everything is shot on location, and it looks great. He also shoots within these locales well; I always knew where the characters were in relation to one another (which sounds simplistic, but I'm thinking of the scene on the river with the Indians where Everett rides up to meet them). I appreciated the unique camera work in the scene on the train where Allison is brought out from underneath the bridge.
Of course, I have to comment on the action and perpetrators there-of. This isn't 3:10 to Yuma (2007) or Tombstone, so the gunplay is pretty sparse. But when it happens, it's well-staged, and often unique in consequence. Virgil and Everett rescuing the kidnappers from the Indians, for example, plays out differently than you might expect. Allison has been kidnapped in order to secure Bragg's release, and Virgil and Everett have tracked them to a canyon. Before they can act, they notice a party of Indians about to raid them. They allow this until the Indians start to take Allison. Rather than shooting the Indians, Virgil and Everett shoot the pack-horse that Allison is on, and fire up into the air to scatter the raiding party. Later, Everett offers the group Bragg's horse to make up for the one they shot. Another unique scene is the shoot-out in the Mexican town. It's close-quarters and over in seconds. It also leads to one of the funniest lines in the movie.
Virgil and Everett lie on the ground, wounded but alive.
Everett: That was quick.
Virgil: Yeah, everybody could shoot.
The sound design is excellent, right up there with Open Range in terms of power and realism.
And the guns! Well, The Gun, anyway.
As you may have read, Everett carries a very unique item: an 8-gauge double-barreled shotgun. Until Appaloosa, I didn't even know 8 was a possible gauge. I'd heard of 10-gauges, and only seen one or two at all the gun auctions I've been to. For those unfamiliar with the gauge system, the smaller the number, the larger the bore. 12-gauge is the most popular. My double-barrel is 12. So the 8-gauge that Everett wields is HUGE, and is mentioned specifically about five times in the beginning of the movie. There are only one or two scenes where Everett is without it, too. He lugs that honkin' thing around everywhere he goes. And you only get to see him use it twice! The other guns are all pretty standard, though I noticed Everett's sidearm is a Colt open-top conversion, which is also unique.
I recommend Appaloosa to Western fans and fans of Viggo & Ed.
The Blu-ray edition of this film sports a nice transfer, great sound, and a few decent supplements.