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Rated 3.09 stars
by 348 people

ReelTalk Movie Reviews
This Western Gets under Your Skin
by Frank Wilkins

Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen follow up their magnetic performances in A History of Violence with another brilliant pairing in Appaloosa, a Western set in the small titular New Mexico town. Harris also directs and co-writes -- adapted from Robert B. Parker's novel --  this unassuming little character-driven tale that captures a slice of time when hardscrabble people tried to live their lives the best they knew how. While the story is an endearingly simple one about friendship, love and romance, it's the chemistry of Harris and Mortensen that makes Appaloosa a huge film in the way it gets under your skin and into your heart.

These two fine actors play a pair of lawmen-for-hire in the 1882 old west. Virgil Cole (Harris) and his deputy partner Everett Hitch (Mortensen) are two tough guys who've been riding together for so long they don't have to speak to one another to communicate. They're as devoted to each other as on old married couple, and in fact, have quite an entertaining way of finishing each other's sentences. When forced into a gunfight, each knows exactly what the other will do. There's an unspoken understanding between them that can't be faked for the screen by actors who don't have a natural rapport. Harris and Mortensen feel real together, and because of this, the film works in a big way. Plus, they both just look flat-out cool playing leather-clad, hair-slickered, gun-toting badasses on horseback. They're made for their parts.

Cole and Hitch are tasked with protecting the townspeople of Appaloosa from a ruthless rancher named Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), who cold-bloodedly murdered the previous city Marshall and is threatening to take over the local copper and silver mines around Appaloosa. They find their friendship put to the test when a beguiling widow-woman named Allison French (played by Renee Zellweger -- looking more bee-sting-faced than ever), rolls into town and sets her sights on Cole. His slow burn from confident freelance lawmen into a love-smitten softie is never more evident than when his dialogue changes from "we don't kill people... we enforce the law," to "she chews her food good" when attempting to describe his love for Allison.

Zellweger's Allison quickly becomes the unlikely antagonist, as she's neither faithful to our hero nor likable by the audience. We're never told much about her other than that she plays the piano and likes to be called Allie. She's supposed to be a somewhat mysterious and calculating character intended to add a certain degree of complexity to the personality matrix, but instead she comes off as an unsympathetic little imp who just gets in the way. It's not that Zellweger necessarily plays her part wrong, but rather that her character isn't written properly. There's too much 20th century airhead in her and not enough 19th century perseverance.

Harris, directing for the second time (his first being 2000's Pollock), displays a certain fondness for the genre. We never feel a heavy hand on the film as he allows the plot to roll along at a slow pace which, while deliberately calculating, never approaches the tedious indulgences sometimes displayed by Andrew Dominik in last year's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. But neither does it have the excitement of 3:10 to Yuma or the mile-a-minute gunfights of Open Range. It's the perfect blend of calculated drama and believable action.

The camerawork of Dean Stemler is stunningly beautiful yet eerily domineering at the same time. Stemler frequently employs wide-angle lenses to capture the grand Southwestern panoramas, where nearly every wide shot could be freeze-framed and included among the most beautiful of coffee table homages to the great Southwest. But whether it's the dusty streets that wind between wooden storefronts and adobe churches along Main street Appaloosa where honorable men settle their differences with bullets and fists, or the Indian-infested vistas of New Mexico, the environment becomes as much a prominent character as the humans who so ably ply their craft.

Appaloosa is not your typical Western where lead flies, body counts rise, and saloon's runneth over with card-playing, liquor-swilling bad guys. And neither is its story necessarily original. But one thing is perfectly clear after watching Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen pair up so well together yet again... the two have that exceptional on-screen magic which so many filmmakers seek, yet are so rarely able to find. It's not a stretch to put Appaloosa amongst the best of films released so far this year.   

(Released by Warner Bros. and rated R for some violence and language.)

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