After the recent surge in westerns and western-themed films in 2007 (3:10 To Yuma, The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, No Country For Old Men), I'm glad that Appaloosa stepped up and continued the trend. Co-writer, producer, director, and star Ed Harris makes his love for the genre clear to the audience as he treats us to a decent western that suffers mostly from Renee Zellweger's performance.
Writer/Director: Ed Harris
Starring: Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Renee Zellweger
Great characters are one of the reasons I love movies so much. I think it's most noticeable when these types of characters appear in westerns (more than other genres) because they're contrasted with such stark backgrounds and relatively simple storylines, making it easier to showcase their relationships with other characters on screen. Such is the case with Appaloosa, a movie that rides heavily on the Lonesome Dove-esque dynamic between its two main characters, lawmen solidly portrayed by Harris and Mortensen (reunited on screen after A History of Violence). The two play cowboys who ride from town to town getting paid to reclaim them for townspeople who are terrorized by gangs and outlaws. Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch are the best in the business, and they've got the track record to prove it. They've been riding together for a while, much like another cowboy duo, and there is an unspoken comraderie and smoothness to their relationship that only years on the American frontier could cultivate. When the two stumble into the town of Appaloosa, they discover this job would be no different than any other they've completed...or would it? As they hunt an outlaw who killed a city marshall, Cole falls for Annie French (Zellweger), the new woman in town. Can our three heroes stay alive long enough to make a home in Appaloosa, or will the evil Bragg and his men put a stop to their plans?
It was kind of tough to pull for Ed Harris after he repeatedly goes back to Zellweger's character after she cheats on him constantly. I wanted to reach up to the screen and smack some sense into his five o'clock shadow; it was really quite frustrating. She even tries to make a move on Hitch, her man's best friend! (Who does that?) Hitch, like an honest cowboy, puts a stop to her funny business and then she tries to blame it on him later. How are we supposed to like a character like that? (Hint - I didn't.) She was definitely the weak link of the cast; even Bragg, the bad guy, was really cool because he was played by Jeremy Irons, who has never disappointed me in anything I've seen him in. Let me stop right now and say this movie is no Tombstone (my favorite western and arguably the best one in the last 20 years), but it takes some cues from that film and succeeds in doing so. The relationship between Cole and Hitch is reminiscient of that of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday (with Mortensen turning in a performance that clearly aspires to Kilmer-ish levels of talent), and the Bragg and his gang and their antics mirror those of Curly Bill and the Cowboys from the aforementioned classic.
(Spoilers ahead. But most of you are never going to see the movie anyway.)
The final scene was worth the wait - although the movie wasn't really that long, it felt much longer due to some scenes that stretched on a little too long. Everett Hitch has finally challenged Bragg (once again, like Tombstone) to a gunfight in the streets. It's referenced many times in the movie that Cole is faster on the draw than Hitch, so Hitch begs Cole not to help him and to allow him to fight this one battle on his own. Hitch knows that this is a defining moment for him - either it will prove that he can hang with the best of them or he'll die knowing he was never good enough. Either way, he's ready to accept his fate and faces off against Bragg in the middle of the town. Of course, he guns down the villain, giving him the ultimate sense of accomplishment and opening up his life for countless opportunities. This is, in effect, an awakening for Everett Hitch, and his time of riding Virgil Cole's coattails has past. It's time to move on with his life, so he rides away from his friend for (possibly) the last time. It was a great show of friendship on Cole's part to actually grant that wish to his friend and let him test his own manhood instead of ensuring Hitch's survival by killing Bragg in the dual. A moving scene, and a great ending to a cool western.
I'd definitely recommend Appaloosa to any fan of the genre. It's got all the great conventions that you've come to love and some good acting holds together the bits that don't work. Occasional movie watchers might be bored with it, but movies like this are the bread and butter of the old Western Wednesday crew. (Oh yeah, a bit of trivia - Diane Lane was signed on to play Zellweger's role, but had to drop out when the movie got stalled in production. Man, you have no idea how much I wish that had panned out.) Until next time...