Friday 24 April 2015

Movie Review: Appaloosa (2008)

An  old-fashioned western, Appaloosa enjoys many good moments thanks to a strong partnership between the two lead actors, but otherwise overreaches and sprawls towards an unconvincing romance and unnecessary prolongation.

It's 1882 in New Mexico. The marshal of the town of Appaloosa and all his deputies are killed by ruthless rancher Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons). The town's elders recruit legendary gunman Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and his gunshot-toting partner Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) to become the new law. Virgil quickly restores order and checks the aggressive behaviour of Bragg's men.

Widow Allie French (RenĂ©e Zellweger) arrives in town, and Virgil is immediately smitten. They start a romance and make plans to settle down together, although Everett notices that Allie's commitment to Virgil may be suspect. Meanwhile Virgil catches a big break when a ranch hand steps forward to testify against Bragg, allowing Virgil and Everett to arrest Bragg and hold him until a judge arrives to hold a trial. But Bragg has allies in unlikely places, and the arrival of gunman Ring Shelton (Lance Henriksen) and his brother Mackie signals the start of a new, violent chapter in Appaloosa.

The second feature film to be directed by Ed Harris (who also co-wrote the script), Appaloosa is a traditional western that treats the genre with the utmost respect. This is both a strength and a weakness. The measured tone and sturdy foundations of the film generate undeniable appeal and set the movie on a sound footing. But there is also little that is new here, and the film serves as a reminder that most of the stories of the west have been told before, and much more than once.

The main crisp element offered by Appaloosa is the relaxed, deep relationship between Virgil and Everett. This is a buddy movie in all the good, rich meanings of the world, and without the contrived tension that is so often added to the mix. Virgil and Everett are simply good together, creating a classic team, with Virgil more comfortable in a leadership role and Everett providing a natural support. Just a touch of humour is added by allowing Everett to carry not only the supportive shotgun but the stronger vocabulary. When Virgil stumbles on complex words, Everett invariably steps in to rescue his friend's sentences.

The film leans heavily on this core friendship, and never succumbs to the cheap thrill of testing it. The few times when Virgil and Everett have a reason to question each other, they quickly don't, emphasizing a bond of quiet trust forged over many years. Harris and Mortensen bring the two men to life with minimum fuss, and both are excellent.

Much less successful is Zellweger as Allie. A replacement for Diane Lane, Zellweger never clicks into a role that requires vulnerability, seduction and manipulation. Zellweger is not able to offer any of the required emotions, and is reduced to following the script along rather than leading with any conviction. Jeremy Irons is adequate as the villain, but he is hampered by the absence of any meaningful backstory to explain his motives.

The film also suffers from some prolongation that starts to get tiresome. A couple of the final chapters could have been shortened, as the mind games and confrontations between Virgil and Bragg drag on and the film meanders in search of a definitive climax. When it arrives, it is good, but the satisfying conclusion can't reverse the damage caused by all the detours to get there.

Neither a genre rejuvenation nor a waste, Appaloosa is a middling effort, a dependable riding partner who neither thrills nor disappoints.

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