STUDIO: Warner Bros.
MSRP: $28.95
RUNNING TIME: 115 baldness infused minutes

  • Commentary
  • Additional Scenes
  • 4 Featurettes
  • Subtitles
  • Digital Copy

The Pitch

Jeremy Irons and his cronies are making life difficult for the citizens of Appaloosa. Who better to prevent injustice and preserve the peace than the seasoned and no-nonsense duo of Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen?

That was rhetorical.

The Humans

Cast: Ed Harris. Viggo Mortensen. Jeremy Irons. Renée Zellweger. Lance Henriksen. Tim Spall. James Gammon. Tom Bower. Rex Linn.

Director: Ed Harris.

Writers: Ed Harris. Robert Knott. Robert Parker (book).

The Nutshell

There’s a perception out there that a Western needs to be Unforgiven to warrant merit. Or perhaps it has to be a hybrid of genres, like Tombstone was. Tombstone is a mainstream action flick that just happens to be a Western just as Open Range is a character piece that just happens to have gunfights. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is an art film that happens to be a tale of the Old West. The list goes on and on.

[Nick sees hornet’s nest, pokes it]The Proposition just happened to be overrated.[Nick walks away from nest]

Appaloosa is a Western, through and through. It doesn’t try to rewrite the book and it’s not the kind of genre film that will make many people’s top ten lists but I’m of the belief that we need a Western or two every year and this is a very capable and entertaining middle of the road entry in a long and storied group of American films. Making matters even more attractive is the presence of two leading characters I’d put up against many of the hallowed ones in the Western pantheon. Appaloosa is no meager film, and being based on a book by the great Robert Parker only ups the ante.

The Lowdown

Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch are two characters who by name alone are obviously gunslingers. How can you be named Virgil Cole and not have a six-shooter at the ready? Ed Harris is Cole, a hard man who makes his mercenary wage by coming to troubled, broken places and ‘fixing’ them with the help of his 8-gauge shotgun toting ally. That’d be Hitch, a soft-spoken and suave gentleman portrayed by Viggo Mortensen, someone who would have been a Western legend had he come up in the 60’s. Together the two are lawmen mercenaries who walk tall and carry very big sticks, or in Cole’s case a really fast draw with the revolver.

It’s nice to see a film in the genre that doesn’t have to come out you sideways as a postmodern or allegorical take on the Western for modern eyes. It’s a gruff, manly little ditty that is kept from the abyss of mediocre Westerns by two phenomenal leading characters. Nothing more.

Thankfully, Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen have incredible chemistry and the means to deliver upon it. There’s a shorthand between these two men both provided through the spare but meaty dialogue, text that doesn’t come off as faux poetic or rote. There’s bite to it, sarcasm. But it’s spare and effective, at least in the hands of these terrific character actors. Surprisingly, though he gets the cooler dialogue, Harris lets his costar steal the spotlight with his effortless class and top notch narration.

As is often the case in this genre, there are bad guys and a woman involved and though Appaloosa is extremely narrow in its focus it doesn’t feel too derivative.

Then again, there’s nothing here that signifies a true original either. This is a tale of two men heading towards a confrontation with bad people. Surprisingly, there are very few moral questions posed. Also surprising is how atypical the romance is, though it may be one of the least romantic romances in recent memory. And that’s a good thing.

Renée Zellweger co-stars as a piano playing lady who is not a whore, at least by profession. This is a major sticking point for her character, Allison. She is not paid for sex. She plays the piano for a living, and she arrives in town and immediately catches the collective eyes of Virgil and Everett. Luckily, as we’re used to seeing a woman split the attentions of sparring male leads, this film quickly goes in a different direction. After a few playful scenes she is instantly Virgil’s girl, relieving the audience of having to endure a cockfight [not literally, as Viggo staisfied that thirst with Eastern Promises]. Instead, Everett serves as Virgils barometer of reality, reminding the good man of the risks of becoming too attached. Those risks become intensified when the woman pretty much proves herself to be a whore, just not the kind she claimed not to be.

Once she’s introduced the film becomes less about saving the town of Appaloosa than it does providing Virgil Cole a future as a settled down husband.

The Pussywhipped Lawman probably couldn’t get them the financing, though.

I actually appreciate the gesture to remove Virgil’s edge once he falls for this odd woman. Even after she makes advances on his friend (and when she tries to cozy up with Everett I feared the film would get dumb fast) and goes above and beyond the call of duty with her captors (including the lovely and wonderful Lance Henriksen). Even after she proves herself to be a total dickhead. He sticks by her, proving that even in the Old West, men are nowhere near as tough as they pretend to be.

But people who watch Westerns for romance are fools. Or they can’t quit Jake Gyllenhaal.

This is about hard men making hard choices and firing pellets of lead in and around each other. To that end Appaloosa is serviceable, nothing more. The action sequences are fast and violent and fun to watch but hardly anything that will set people’s preferences in the genre. It’s sufficient.

Where it delivers is in character moments. Particularly the two leads, who are excellent and worthy of many stories together. I could watch Mortensen and Harris play these parts together forever. Adding to the value is Jeremy Irons delivering an actual performance as the villain, something which came as a surprise in the wake of many paycheck gigs for the Oscar winner.

This is a very decent film made much better than it deserves by two very special talents. I’d say it’s a must-see but certainly not based on the story or craftsmanship.

The Package

There aren’t a ton of special features here, the most juicy being a commentary track from Harris and his cohort Robert Knott. It’s a decent track, but mostly a matter of Harris in a very quiet and gruff voice going over the details of the production from a technical and tactical perspective rather than speaking from his own artistic vision. Though obviously impassioned by the book and the possibilities of the material this doesn’t sing to the viewer like some auteur’s labor of love. Then again, before Pollock I had no idea that Ed Harris was an artist. He was a blue-collar badass who flew rockets and typed with shaky fingers at the sea’s crannies. I don’t what I expected from the track but it’s blue-collar and unpretentious, and that’s better than the artist’s soul laid bare for our $19.99 DVD dollars.

It’s not the most engaging track though, and certainly not something I’d say warrants the purchase.

Nor are the featurettes, which are somewhat short looks at the making of the film and its authenticity as well as a much-deserved look at D.P. Dean Semler’s return to the Western genre.

Overall, though… the special features are features but not all that special.

Aside from the digital copy, which is extremely special because this is a film I’ll enjoy listening to in the car as much as I do watching it at home

It’s not a classic, but I’m proud to own this flick and plan on visiting it again soon.

8.4 out of 10