Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Renée Zellweger
4 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
The American western is a dying art form. Once the cinematic canvas for red-blooded heroes like John Wayne, Kurt Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Clint Eastwood, and Trigger, the world of men of few words, dead-eye shootin' sheriffs and sanctimonious sodbusters ran smack into the reality of the turbulent 60s. The public's thirst for characters reflecting the imperfections of the human condition turned the humble, aw shucks cowpoke into hard-drinking, icy killers and damaged loners. On television, cowboys went from the clean-cut Cartwrights to the F-bomb slinging Al Swearengen in "Deadwood."
Every so often a western comes along that combines the thrilling shoot 'em up action and white hat morality of the genre from yesteryear mixed with the reality based dialogue that harnesses the good, the bad and the ugly in all of us. Well, pardner, "Appaloosa" is such a film. It's sagebrush bonding without the uncomfortable touchy-feely undertones of "Brokeback Mountain." Even if you don't like westerns, the dynamic between old pal peace officers Virgil Cole (veteran character actor Ed Harris, who also wrote and produced the film) and Everett Hatch (Viggo Mortensen, conveying cowboy cool), will leave you glued to your saddle.
It may surprise you to know that my litmus test for westerns is a relatively modern one - 1993's "Tombstone," which starred Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp, ubiquitous western character actor Sam Elliot as Virgil Earp, Val Kilmer as Doc Holiday and Michael Biehn as Johnny Ringo. (For the record, I'll mention that some of my other favorite westerns are "The Gunfighter" with Gregory Peck in a rare bad guy turn as...Johnny Ringo; "The Ox-Bow Incident" with Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan; "The Magnificent Seven," the inaccurate, but entertaining "O.K Corral" with a hearty Kurt Douglas as the tubercular Doc Holiday and a pre-"Star Trek" DeForest Kelly playing Morgan Earp; and Clint Eastwood's "The Outlaw Josie Wales." Please note there are no John Wayne films mentioned, pilgrim.) "Tombstone" had the rare quality of being true to the events leading up to the gunfight at the O.K. Corral as well as the consequences that followed. Unlike Kevin Costner's leaden, angst-ridden American hero portrayal of Earp the same year, Russell imbued his Wyatt with the hint of a sense of humor and let the audience see one of our most celebrated peace officers wasn't very peaceable after all. Biehn was a tortured, vengeful villain, and Kilmer gave Holiday an authentic Georgia accent as well as a sense of tragic humanity Dennis Quaid's excellent but bloodthirsty portrayal of Doc didn't have.
Set in the New Mexico territory in 1882, the familiar plot rides in on the notion that the beleaguered, bullied townspeople of Appaloosa, who've been kowtowing to above-the-law brash Brit Randall Bragg (erudite Jeremy Irons), want their freedom. They hire two veteran lawmen, quiet but deadly Virgil Cole and his loyal deputy, Everett Hatch. Cole wastes little time enforcing the law - my town, my rules. He pistol whips an unruly drunk who insults a woman, knocks out the front teeth and confidence of one of Bragg's hired hands, and promises Bragg he'll hang for gunning down his predecessor. Bragg snorts at the idea he'll be tried, much less convicted, until one of his own men offers to become the prosecution's main witness against him.
Every hero needs a distraction, and Cole's rides into town one day on the afternoon train in the form of Allie French (Renee Zellweger, proving blondes don't always have more fun - or talent). Cole immediately falls for her, and the couple makes plans to settle down, building a house in town.
As Cole and Hatch prepare for Bragg's trial, Cole is surprised by the sudden appearance of Ring Shelton (deliciously treacherous Lance Hendricksen), and his brother, Mackie. As the saying goes, Ring and Cole "have history,' and although they rode together as friends, they parted as adversaries. Cole knows the Shelton Brothers claim of being in town for Bragg's trial is a lie, but can't figure out what they're up to.
Much to Bragg's surprise, he's convicted and put on a train to Yanqui, where he's set to be hanged. The Shelton Brothers stop the train, having been hired by Bragg to spring him. They have Allie as their hostage, and promise Cole they'll kill her if he doesn't release Bragg. Cole is forced to comply. He and Hatch track Bragg and the Shelton's into Indian Territory. Cole and Hatch both knew a day would come when Allie would come between them, Bragg would have to be dealt with, and they'd have to settle up the Sheltons. How these traditional western elements subtly come together is a major part of "Appaloosa's" attraction.
If Viggo Mortensen has ever given a bad performance, I haven't seen it. He's the film's narrator, but you get to see as much of Cole's guarded personality as his. He's Cole's right hand man, and is comfortable in that role, even serving as his cowboy Cyrano De Bergerac when Virgil courts Allie. Hatch appears to be an efficient, gentlemanly bookend to Virgil Cole's straight arrow silent authority, and other unsaid differences between the way the two men approach the law and life become more apparent as the film progresses. The two guns for hire have been together for so long that Hatch finishes Cole's sentences:
Cole: Killing is what happens sometimes. It's a by...by?
Viggo's cannon-sized buffalo gun is an ever present extension of his personality. Yes it's a variation of the gun as penis routine, but it's handled with tact.
There are other top notch actors ridin' the range. Ed Harris had enough on his plate as co-producer and screen writer, but he also gives a bravo performance in the Gary Cooper, Randolph Scott virtuous-but-sensitive lawman mold as the tight-lipped, determined Virgil Cole. Like Everett Hatch, he has a high moral compass and a low tolerance for law breaking bullies like Bragg:
Bragg: I told you you'd never hang me, Cole.
Cole: Never ain't here, yet.
What separates Cole from Hatch is how they're affected or unaffected by friendship and love. Hatch allows himself a modicum of compassion, and acknowledges his fear or lust. Cole says, "Feelings will get you killed." Cole seldom lets his guard down, even after he meets Allie. Watching Harris' character wrestle with his feelings for Allie is one of the film more layered and interesting plots. Cole is torn between his friendship for Hatch, his duty to clean up the town, and his love for Allie.
Lance Hendrickson has made a name for himself in Grade B Sci-Fi films playing troubled loners (Frank Black in the "X-Files" spin-off "Millennium") compassionate androids ("Alien") and chum for mutants ("Pumpkinhead"). He has the perfect craggy features, thousand yard steely stare and devious intent for Ring Shelton. He's the flip side of Virgil Cole; a back shootin,' lying, do-anything-for-a-dime mercenary; yet he's as devoted to finishing his mission as Cole is to completing his. He maintains a bit of old west honor by calling out his old friend for a shootout rather than bushwhacking him. Listening to Hendrickson's gritty voice and watching him chew up the desert when he walks is a cinematic treat. He knows how to cowboy up.
Whoever thought it would be a good idea to have a sophisticated, educated villain was as wrong as Custer at the Little Big Horn. Jeremy Irons is plenty churlish, but frankly I was more impressed with the more base anger displayed by his underlings (like Hendrickson). Irons just doesn't do villains all that well. His turn as Simon Gruber, uber villain Alan Rickman's brother in "Die Hard With a Vengeance" was Hans lite. Irons' Bragg threatens with words and bluster. Sure, he ruthlessly guns down the sheriff in his opening scene, but he's reluctant and ineffective at administering the same punishment to Cole and Hatch. Simon says stick with parlor dramas, Jeremy.
Renee Zellweger acts as if she's in another picture, or two, or three. The road map to make her character multi-dimensional is laid out adequately enough - she admits to sharing Ring Shelton's bed roll in order to save her life, and says she's been everything from a piano player to a prostitute in order to survive. Her fickleness and willingness to betray anyone with the patience to fall in love with her should have been enough to make Allie an interesting, edgy character. Instead Zellweger pouts, preens, bats her eyelashes like she's the heroine in a silent movie, and wraps her misguided movements around a whiny voice that drifts between Southern Belle and South Philly. She exists only to get in the way. Because she two-times Cole two times she's not a likeable character.
Perhaps Zellweger gave such a harrowingly horrible performance because she was signed to replace Diane Lane. Lane would have been better in the role; not only is she more purdy, she would have brought a toughness to Allie that Zellweger can't pull off. Zellweger's cartoonish when she's angry, like Betty Hutton grinning her way through a rootin' tootin' western musical. And let's not get into the fact that Zellweger is made up like some macabre cupie doll, her rosy chipmunk cheeks in direct contrast to her blotchy alabaster skin and Neanderthal eyebrows. Sometimes making someone look too authentic can make them look like they're auditioning for "Freaks." That aside, maybe Zellweger just doesn't have enough saloon girl saunter for a straight dramatic role.
On the other hand, Ariadna Gil lights up the screen as Kate, Hatch's saloon girl love interest. Her relationship with Hatch is upfront, honest, and taken for what it is -- two ships passing in the night that have found a temporary common berth.
Horsing Around With the Extras...
Appaloosa corrals a posse full of extras: "Bringing the Characters of Appaloosa to Life," "The Historical Accuracy of Appaloosa," "The Town of Appaloosa," "Dean Semler's Return to the Western," deleted scenes, and commentary by Ed Harris and screenwriter/producer Robert Knott. When you hear Harris' earnest observations in "Bringing the Characters of Appaloosa to Life," you'll marvel at how he was able to use the silence and unspoken understanding between Cole and Hatch as a device to carry the plot. "The Accuracy of Appaloosa," highlights Harris' attention to the period's look, how everything represented on screen, the clothes, weapons, spurs, even Harris and Mortensen's badges were as historically accurate as possible. Mortensen also gives a short dissertation on his eight gauge shotgun, and how it became a character unto itself. "The gun is either in my hand or right next to me," Mortensen says. "Because it's huge and heavy, it makes an impression."
"Appaloosa" is a horse of a different color, a western that delivers both barrels: it's got the traditional theme of good versus evil and strong performances by its lead characters. Saddle up kids - you'll enjoy the ride.