Review: “Appaloosa”

January 15, 2009 at 1:24 am Leave a comment

The Old West comes alive in this tale directed by Ed Harris.  I’ve been meaning to check this one out ever since hearing about it as it played in various film festivals.  While the film is hailed by many as “gripping entertainment” and “a fine dramatic comedy“, it definitely got its share of negative press.  Even though there are things about this movie that I didn’t like, on the whole I did find Appaloosa to be an entertaining, albeit slow-paced Western drama.

Ed Harris plays Virgil Cole, and he and his partner Everette Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) go about the Wild West as hired guns, bringing justice to the various untamed towns.  They’re hired by some of the prominent residents of the town of Appaloosa to investigate the murder of the town’s (now ex-) sheriff.  Putting on the badge of the law, the two run into rancher Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), who’s posse are some of the meanest in the area.  They eventually arrest him, but bringing him to trial is something else entirely.

The film runs around 110 minutes, so it’s not that long, but it feels that way.  Many of the complaints about the film’s pace is because there’s lots of standing around, with the characters not doing or saying much.  Harris had explained that this film is a throwback to the old-school Westerns, a la The Magnificent Seven or Once Upon a Time in the West, so there’s plenty of wide angles, empty spaces, and silence.  That’s fine with me, as the characters are interesting enough to watch.  Mostly.

Renee Zellweger plays Allison French, a widow who takes a liking to both Cole and Hitch, and proves to be a real complication to the pair.  Watching the triangle that forms among them, and the rift it causes, is interesting, if predictable.  The rest of the cast is OK, and I do enjoy watching Jeremy Irons play villains.  Lance Henriksen has an extended cameo as Ring Shelton, another hired gun and old acquaintance of Cole’s.  Mortensen does an admirable job of playing the sidekick, and he does get about the same screentime as Harris does.  I just think that the relationship between Cole and Hitch could’ve been fleshed out a little bit more.

The story does a good job of establishing their loyalty to each other, but toward the end, there’s this sense that the two characters are on two separate tracks.  Cole is getting older and is looking to settle down, while Hitch is still young enough to stay in his line of work.  It’s this dynamic between the two that’s hinted at, and is given a resolution, but it seems a tad rushed.

The action is kept to a bare minimum.  I watched ‘Attack of the Show’ recently and their resident film critic, Chris Gore, slammed to movie for being boring and not for today’s sophisticated audiences.  He claims that a modern movie-goer should be able to process more information than someone fifty years ago could, and that’s true, but that doesn’t mean that a slower-paced film is ‘boring’ compared to today’s hyper-cutting commercial films.  Don’t get me wrong, I love modern films as well (I’m one of the few who think Michael Bay is a motherf-ing genius), but I happen to appreciate films like Appaloosa because of their comments of justice and morality.

Anyway, what I admire about the action in this film is how ‘realistic’ it is.  I know that term gets thrown around a lot these days, but I find the action here just has hard-hitting and brutal as it does in an action film set in modern times.  Here, the guns don’t explode when fired and blood doesn’t burst from bodies when they’re shot.  The guns make a *pop* sound when someone pulls a trigger (as opposed to the sound of a cannon)  and the punches sound muted, just like they would in real life.  And there’s collectively maybe three minutes of actual violence scattered throughout the story.

I hope that the industry gets to a point where they want to do a complete revival of the Western genre, just like how disaster films had a boom within the past 15 years.  Films like this, 2007’s 3:10 To Yuma, and Kevin Costner’s excellent Open Range prove that Westerns can still be the same morality plays that they were 40+ years ago, and still be entertaining.  It’s a fascinating genre that had similar roots to the film noir genre; both started as cheap, easy to produce mass market films that would appeal to the majority of the audience, and now they’re both relegated to art houses and classic movie channels.  Appaloosa won’t please everyone, but for film enthusiasts, it’s worth checking out.

7.5/10

(images from Yahoo!)

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