While the modest resurgence of the Western, with films such as "3:10 to Yuma," "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" and "The Proposition," has been a welcome thing, it has been noteworthy that this resurgence has largely been devoid of an old school Western.
Maybe a Jimmy Stewart style Western? You know the kind...a Western where the characters are richly and humanly drawn not just to shoot em' up but also for sweeping heroics, a few chuckles and a streak of humanity.
"Appaloosa," the latest film co-written and directed by Ed Harris, is such a Western.
The film stars the aforementioned Harris as Virgil Cook, a straight as an arrow lawman brought in by the folks of Appaloosa to help rid the town of badguy Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) and his sordid gang. Cook brings with him his lifelong partner in Justice, Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen).
While there's plenty of action to be had in "Appaloosa," it's more Harris's attention to dialogue, character and the film's overall production design that makes the film so memorable. So often in Westerns, it's all action and testosterone without a thought to what happens when the guns aren't blazin'. In "Appaloosa," we get to know these complex characters as multi-faceted folks who make some good choices, some bad choices and some choices where you're going "I wonder what that's all about." While there's never a doubt who's supposed to be the good guy and who's supposed to be the bad guy, even the justice-driven Cook and Hitch are drawn with wide streaks of questionable humanity.
Into the mix, Renee Zellweger shows up as Allie French, a new woman in town who projects herself as a widow and seems a lot different than the other women folk in town. She takes an interest in Virgil, but maybe Everett...well, at times she seems as much like an old West groupie as she does anything else.
"Appaloosa" follows the basic Western formula, though not strictly. There's lots of action, a few gunfights, the bad guys versus the good guys and, of course, the romantic conflicts that occasional fuel it all. Yet, "Appaloosa" is a dialogue heavy film in which we get to know the characters, begin to understand their motivations and have time to bond with them in between action sequences.
The entire cast excels here, with Mortensen and Harris having a nice camaraderie while displaying just enough of a difference to make their friendship that much more intriguing. Irons delights as the baddie Bragg, and Zellweger again proves herself to be right at home in costume pieces such as this one.
Tech credits for "Appaloosa" are stellar, with the film's production design transcending recent efforts in this genre. Harris's script, which he co-wrote with Robert Knott, adds light touches of authentic humor throughout adding yet another touch of old school naturalism to the entire affair.
While "Appaloosa" is flawed, especially in its final act, it's a refreshing and entertaining addition to the recent resurgence in Hollywood of the Western genre. Harris again proves himself a capable and visionary director, and a genre that it appeared might be dead shows signs of life again.
by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic