Appaloosa
Who the hell invited Cheney? Everyone duck!

Theatrical Release Date: 10/3/2008
Director: Ed Harris
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Ed Harris, Jeremy Irons, James Gammon, Timothy Spall, Renée Zellweger, Lance Henriksen

It seems that once a year, a western is unleashed upon American cinemagoers; even though Hollywood continues to keep the genre at arms length, due to its lack of ability to draw a very big box office – especially worldwide.

For 2008, that effort goes to writer/director/producer/star Ed Harris; hopefully, all those different job titles means he believes in the project. Sadly, the result makes me wonder why. Based on the same-titled novel by Robert B. Parker, “Appaloosa” is a rehash of just about every western I’ve ever seen. A ruthless rancher needs to be put in his place and the town hires a new Marshall to bring law and justice to the land. If you want to, it could be a fun game to see what other westerns this one “borrows” from … I’ll give you all a head start and say “Tombstone” and “Wyatt Earp”.

Fun and games aside, playing what one would think is the main bad guy is Jeremy Irons, who hasn’t met a villainous role he didn’t like. At the outset, it seems a great casting choice and there was potential to do something great here … but as the rest of the review will corroborate, potential is just about all this film has. After a few bouts of verbal sparring with the new Marshall (Ed Harris) and his deputy (Viggo Mortensen), Irons is basically relegated to the background and it wouldn’t have mattered if they cast someone’s uncle at that point. Like his role, the other elements that drive the conflict of the film shift almost as if the crew were yelling out choices like it was an improv exercise.

As the leads of the film, Harris and Mortensen show a clear and playful chemistry with one another – owed perhaps to their previous collaboration in David Cronenberg’s excellent 2005 film, “A History of Violence“. The best moments of the film are ones shared by the two of them – only just like the rest of the film, there is a lack of consistent tone to their relationship that only serves to further hold the project from reaching its true potential.

On the one hand, they’re serious gunmen for hire; good at what they do, taking no guff from anyone but each other and living their lives by the adage that it’s their way or the highway. However, there are many comedic touches to their interplay that chip away at their stony facades.

This would have been fine, if the story and character development for the rest of the film hadn’t been such a jumbled mix of rushed and glacial, natural and forced. “Appaloosa” begins as a simple white hat/black hat gunfight waiting to happen. Then it turns into a love story. Then it turns into a rescue film. Then it turns into a film about escorting prisoners out of hostile territory. Then it turns into a grudge match between two old gunslingers (Harris and Lance Henriksen, the latter who turns up over halfway through the film). Then it turns into a look at what becomes of the aging lawman soon to be pushed aside for the sake of progress. Then it turns into a wild west code of honor flick. Then it finally ends. Wait … yeah, it finally ends. Supposedly the running time on this is just under two hours … it felt far over that however as I continually shifted in my seat the last third of the film.

Adding to the problems is Renée Zellweger. For once, I’m not going to so much harp on her acting but there are two major problems that make her character worthless: the make-up department and the script. Look, I hate to be a jerk here but her introductory scene created gasps, laughs and general befuddlement amongst the entire audience because she looked terrible. Terrible! If they were going for realism, let me be the first to say that was a very bad idea. As the film progresses, either I got used to her looking as broke as a two dollar watch or the old make-up team was beaten and fired and a new crew was brought in.

Worse still is her character as delineated by the script. She’s a woman who clings to the alpha male of society and flitters back and forth between most of the men in the film. This would have been fine if the film had been about her relationship with them but at its core, the film is a tale of good versus evil and her inclusion at all should have been nothing more than a few passing scenes. Her presence deeper and deeper into the film doesn’t broaden the scope of things at all and only detracts from the overall experience.

This is Ed Harris’ second directorial effort (2000′s “Pollock”) and I have to say I’m surprised at how it all turned out. I assumed he took so long between stints in the director’s chair in order to find the right project and create something similarly impressive. Instead, I think the best parts of the film were on-set or behind the scenes as the impressive cast (lemon-faced Zellweger notwithstanding) gathered around the campfire, drank ale and told stories – at least, that’s what I like to think they would have done.

I’m afraid I can only muster up a 2 out of 5 for “Appaloosa” … there are just too many inconsistencies with plot and character development, as well as tone. And I didn’t even mention until now the score that was a mix of old western, Asian and god knows what other sounds. That didn’t help matter either. Even if (or especially because) you’re a fan of westerns, skip this and rerent last year’s “3:10 to Yuma“, the excellent and overlooked Australian western “The Proposition” or just about any Clint Eastwood film.