Nothing seems to fire up actors more than making a western. The chance to pack a six-shooter, don leather chaps, tear across rugged terrain and plant your name in the genre that’s spawned more Hollywood hardmen than any other.
It’s almost like you’re not really a man until you have an oater on your cv. It’s what keeps the genre pounding its hoofbeats across celluloid rather than being consigned to the glue factory. Because, sad but true, it’s hard to make moviegoers give a toss these days.
Into that indifferent atmosphere strides Ed Harris with Appaloosa, the craggy Oscar winner deciding eight years is a long-enough wait to follow up his directorial debut Pollock. Adapted from Robert B. Parker’s novel about two travelling marshalls invited into a beleaguered New Mexico outpost to ward off psycho-dandy rancher Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) and his gang of slimy reprobates, Appaloosa has plenty to satisfy.
Viggo Mortensen’s Everett Hitch and Harris’ Virgil Cole are ruthless lawmen-for-hire who trade spare, punchy quips. Honing in on their survival-symbiosis, Appaloosa’s trump card is the duo’s chemistry-rich camaraderie (even if they’re hamstrung by a failed stab at making a running joke out of Cole’s inability to remember the right word at the right time with Hitch filling in the blanks).
Appaloosa also trips up in the steam-train arrival of widow Renee Zellweger’s, a simpering transgressor who threatens to break the guys’ friendship with her eagerness to shed her bloomers for any cowpoke with leadership qualities. Women are often boiled down in westerns as threats to male platonic love, but Zellweger looks lost in a role that leaves her a cipher. Which may explain her somewhat annoying performance…
Harris sets a deliberately unhurried pace that offers plenty of scope for drawling interplay but is also light on what gives the genre its pulse: explosive, six-shooter action and hot-footed horseback pursuits.
It’s a shame too that the love-triangle comes at the expense of Appaloosa’s most intriguing theme: Cole’s sociopathic tendencies to overstep the boundaries of his town-cleaning remit, a topic whose modern-day parallels seemingly offer way more dramatic reward than Zellweger’s gaudy-gowned interloper.