“Appaloosa” is a decent Western made in an era when a Western has to be pretty darn good to rope people into a theater to see it. With genial performances from Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen as good guys and a snakey Jeremy Irons as the chief baddie, Harris’ first directorial outing since his impressive and entirely different “Pollock” biopic bears echoes of many genre predecessors, especially Howard Hawks’ “Rio Bravo” — but echoes they remain. With a sometimes goofy sense of humor as its main distinguishing mark, this New Line title fed into the Warner Bros. distribution mill looks poised for modest fall biz.
Having nothing to do with a horse or Sidney J. Furie’s 1966 Universal release “The Appaloosa,” starring Marlon Brando, this very faithful adaptation of Robert B. Parker’s novel instead focuses on two dapper roving lawmen — they probably wouldn’t like being called mercenaries — who turn up in the eponymous New Mexico town after the local marshal and two of his men are gunned down by Irons’ Randall Bragg, a gang leader bent on controlling a good deal of New Mexico territory.
Script by Robert Knott and Harris slips into semi-comic mode almost at once, as Virgil Cole (Harris), clad in a well-tailored black outfit, and more taciturn right-hand man Everett Hitch (Mortensen) lay out their terms to local civic leaders (led by Timothy Spall, trying to maintain English propriety in an unlikely setting) for restoring order: What they say goes.
The men prove their worth by taking down three of Bragg’s boys who come to test them, after which Bragg himself turns up for a chat with Virgil. “Maybe you aren’t good enough,” Bragg threatens with a John Huston-like growl in a classic Hawksian line, and you know there’s a showdown waiting at the end of the road.
But there are many high noons in between. Newly arrived widow Allison French (Renee Zellweger) presents herself as a proper lady and intrigues Virgil as such, but subsequently provides plenty of reasons to believe she is anything but. Harris, as actor and director, milks for all its worth Virgil’s surprise at his sudden bent for domesticity with this piano-playing rose, given that his previous history with women has been limited to “whores and squaws.” For his part, Everett observes his pal’s courtship with incredulous bemusement, although he soon gets an insight into Allison’s true character he’s not about to share with his friend.
When one of Bragg’s gang slips into town to say he’ll testify in court against his boss, Virgil and Everett manage to arrest the slippery villain. It’s here that the story hews closely to “Rio Bravo,” as the two lawmen stand vigilant guard at their small jail until a judge can arrive to try their prisoner, knowing that at some point the captive’s men will try to spring him and kill the witness in the bargain.
But by the midway point, there are still plenty of surprises, and the track takes many turns before anyone can get a good night’s sleep.
Dialogue, much of it lifted straight from Parker’s novel, proves mostly engaging, especially as it relates to Virgil’s dedication to improving his vocabulary. He tries to drop impressive, polysyllabic words into his speech whenever he thinks of them; some attempts are more successful than others, but are invariably comic. When the well-spoken Bragg inhabits the cell right next to his desk, he’s put at a distinct linguistic disadvantage.
Pic’s most disappointing aspect stems from the visuals. Direction, especially in the interiors, consists of standard master shots and cut-ins, while outdoors stuff, mostly shot in New Mexico, looks oddly thin and washed-out. Compositions lack boldness, and the action could have generated more visceral excitement.
Interest is mainly sustained by the plot and repartee between Harris and Mortensen, with Irons reliably injecting menace whenever he’s on. Gradual revelation of Allison’s true nature offers mild surprise. But given that Virgil credits his long survival in his risky line of work to a reserve born of his belief that “feelings get you killed,” one wonders exactly what it is about her that makes him drop his heart-of-stone resolve for this particular woman; Zellweger doesn’t exactly clarify the matter.