Appaloosa, which arrives on DVD January 13, has a quintessentially Western plot. The titular town has been terrorized by an amoral rancher named Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), who even went so far as to kill the local city marshal and one of his deputies in cold blood when they tried to stop his lawlessness. Desperate for help, the town leaders hire a new city marshal, Virgil Cole (Ed Harris). He arrives with his partner Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortenssen) and a whole new set of laws in tow. Bragg, of course, does not take kindly to being told what he can and cannot do. Cole is not intimidated by him, and both men repeatedly try to intimidate one another to see who flinches first.
There's someone else new in town, too: Allison French (Renee Zellweger), a piano player who seems to be attracted to whomever is the biggest dog around. She becomes romantically involved with Cole, has ties to Bragg, and makes a come-on toward Hitch. This last little complication tests the friendship between the new city marshal and his right hand man. But just a little; after all, they still have to find a way to bring Bragg to justice.
I've always been of two minds when it comes to the Western genre. For whatever reason, I have never had interest in the traditional celebrations of the Wild West as a glorious, ideal place. John Wayne made a career of celebrating the "cowboy ethic," but honestly, that sort of thing has always bored me. Much preferable are Westerns that somehow plunge the dark depths of human behavior, be it High Noon, any of the Clint Eastwood pictures like Unforgiven, or the recent remake of 3:10 to Yuma. The "Wild" in Wild West surely came from somewhere, and I think the moodier movies are more rewarding for addressing that fact.
Appaloosa falls somewhere in the middle. While it doesn't do anything that hasn't been done before, it does present an interesting series of conflicts between the characters. There is a relationship of animosity between Bragg and Cole. One's a bad guy determined to continue his abuses, while the other is a good guy every bit as determined to restore order. They play a continual game of one-upsmanship, with both of them being quite skilled at it. (That's where the tension comes in - from the irresistible force of Bragg meeting the immoveable object that is Cole). Running counter to that is the conflict between Cole and Hitch, which remains unspoken yet always on the surface between them. You sense that Hitch would like to make a play for Allison - and would, were it not for a loyalty to his partner. Cole senses it and, under any other circumstance, would likely fight harder for the woman he loves. But again, he's got the loyalty issue on his side. Appaloosa follows these dual sets of conflicts to a conclusion where they seem to merge together.
When you get right down to it, this isn't really a story about a hero and a villain anyway; it's about two heroes - friends and colleagues who go through a number of different challenges together. The film allows us to observe them in their element, to see how they rely on each other, play off each other, balance each other out. By the end, we understand what makes them click, both as individuals and as a team. Harris and Mortensen work a similar way as actors, hooking into each other's wavelength to create a strong partnership.
Directed and co-written by Ed Harris, the movie has a dry sense of humor in many of the scenes, especially the ones between Cole and Hitch, who have developed a comradely banter between them. Harris and Mortensen are both terrific in their roles, and Zellweger is pretty good too. While there's no doubt Jeremy Irons can play a heavy with the best of them, his accent here is mildly distracting. Bragg sounds like the first British cowboy, ever. If you can get past that (which I did), Appaloosa makes for a decent movie-watching experience. Again, nothing new or groundbreaking here, just a lot of talented people coming together for a well-made and entertaining Western.
( out of four)
Appaloosa hits DVD and Blu-Ray on January 13 from Warner Home Video. The DVD contains the film in both widescreen and fullscreen formats, while the Blu-Ray is widescreen only.
The bonus features begin with an audio commentary from director/co-writer Ed Harris and producer/co-writer Robert Knott. The duo also provides optional commentary on five deleted scenes. Most of the scenes are inconsequential to the story - little odds and ends that add flavor but weren't essential. The most significant of them is a prologue that was ultimately cut. In this scene, Bragg's men attack a young couple, killing the husband and terrorizing his wife. It's a shocking moment, excised - according to Harris - in order to get into the thrust of the story more quickly.
There are also various featurettes about the making of the film. "Bringing the Characters of Appaloosa to Life" features the cast members talking about their roles. Given that so much of the film's appeal comes from the carefully nuanced characters - and given that the actors are all known for being detail oriented in their performances - this is quite an interesting segment.
"Historical Accuracy of Appaloosa" looks at the production design. Great pains were taken to make the movie look and feel authentic to the real town in the real time period, particularly in the guns. "The Town of Appaloosa" continues this theme, showing us the meticulous sets that were built for shooting.
Finally, there is "Dean Semler's Return to the Western." Film buffs will know that Semler is one of the great cinematographers ever. He speaks at length about how Appaloosa was the first movie in years that he shot on traditional film. Having made the transition to digital video - and being a pioneer in it - Semler was lured to the production by the opportunity to shoot an old-fashioned Western. Film stock was the only way to give it that classic look, so he reverted to the older, but still terrific, technology, much to the surprise of his industry colleagues. (For the record, he still loves digital.)
Westerns are not made nearly as often as they used to be, but Appaloosa is a good one. With some entertaining special features to round out the package, this will be a safe bet for fans of the genre.
Appaloosa is rated R for some violence and language. The running time is 1 hour and 48 minutes.
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