Appaloosa is the sort of solid, simple Western that Hollywood used to crank out 20 times a year. Ed Harris, working from a Robert Parker novel, has crafted a meticulously detailed, newfangled old-fashioned morality tale of hard men who go soft when a woman comes between them.
And if it's not particularly surprising, ask yourself how often John Wayne, Alan Ladd or Jimmy Stewart surprised us. It's not the novelty that sells this. It's the familiarity.
In the New Mexico of 1882, a rich rancher ( Jeremy Irons, a great villain) has put himself and his hired hands above the law. He has murdered the marshal and his deputies. The townsfolk want him reigned in. So they bring in hired guns (Harris and Viggo Mortsensen), men who take control, change the laws and bring order by force of personality and the speed of their draw.
Virgil Cole (Harris), always dressed in black, has been doing this lawman-for-hire bit for a while. Is he fast?
"So far, I been fast enough."
Everett Hitch (Mortensen) is the sensitive one, as sensitive as a man who totes an 8-ga. shotgun can be.
They confront the bad guy, confront him again, and when the breaks come their way, arrest him and wait for the judge to show up for the trial. There's the rub -- waiting for justice, waiting for the henchmen to make their move.
A pretty widow woman ( Renee Zellweger) has flounced into town and Virgil is instantly smitten. He has feelings. That's not good.
"Feelings gitcha killed."
Everett, clothed in shades of brown, narrates our tale and corrects his partner's grammar whenever Virgil stammers, "What word am I lookin' for?"
Here's one: portentous. As in "evil, ominous." Not to be confused with pretentious, which Appaloosa most certainly is not. You just know Virgil's new weakness will be on display, loyalties tested and skills displayed when the good bad men and the bad guys gather for a showdown.
"It happened quick."
"Ever'body could shoot."
There isn't a false note in the script or a false step by this Oscar-coated cast. Lance Henriksen, an old Harris acquaintance (The Right Stuff), rides in as a competing gunman and delivers, Timothy Spall Ö makes a properly British town councilman. Harris stages a couple of nice shoot-outs, a dandy stand-off on a train, and made sure he cast friends, compadres, folks he has worked with who know how to look good on a horse. He keeps his story so simple that it's easy to freight this with meaning, modern metaphor about the freedoms you may or may not give up to stay safe and the different rules the rich play by.
The boys talk a lot, which works against the picture. But the familiar story-beats of Rio Bravo, Rio Lobo, The Rare Breed, Ride the High Country, Winchester '73 and every good Western that came before it work their magic.
Too many recent installments in this genre have felt cut-rate, cluttered, overlong, with a payoff that doesn't follow "the code of the West." Not Appaloosa. Harris immerses us in the sagebrush and reminds us of the old rules before he dares to bend them. Sometimes, good guys wear black. Or brown.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times