I have to say, I have always been a fan of westerns. Honestly, the past few years have been mostly a hit or a miss; some are good, while others always come way short of instant western classics such as "Unforgiven" and "Tombstone". With the recent releases such as "3:10 To Yuma" and "The Assassination of Jesse James" in the U.S., even Asian filmmakers have gotten into the western bandwagon with "Sukiyaki Western Django" from Japan and " The Good, the Bad and the Weird" from Korea--seems like westerns are making a comeback. "APPALOOSA" is the most recent western entry based on a novel by Robert B. Parker and directed by Ed Harris who also plays the lead role along with a very stellar cast. Such a film demands attention, and "Appaloosa" doesn't disappoint.
1882 in the U.S. Mexican territory, two hard cases named Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) have been summoned to Appaloosa because they get the job done and they are the best at what they do--they keep the peace even if it meant creating laws to do it. After the supposed disappearance of the previous town marshal and his two deputies, Cole and Hitch have been hired by desperate town leaders who sign over the town in a matter of minutes. The culprit is a wealthy rancher named Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), who has his band of enforcers and who has been stirring up trouble in the small town. Cole and Hitch are set on a collision course with Bragg's band of hired guns, and to make things much more complicated for Cole, the arrival of Allison French (Renee Zellweger) and this enigmatic woman may be destined to change their lives forever.
The film does have the usual elements of gunplay, friendship and camaraderie, but it also gives a quick look at sacrifice and the means to survive during these dangerous times. Thankfully, this is no sappy love triangle with Hitch, Cole and Allison, otherwise, I wouldn't waste my time. The film does serve up an effective study of the film's situation and harsh times. While much of it is expressed around Cole and Allison's relationship (or lack there of), the relationship between Hitch and Cole is also explored. The time of their partnership is unspecified, but it is a very long time, their partnership had become friendship. Randall Bragg may represent the ultimate opportunist and represents the unfairness of politics while the brothers Ring and Mackie Shelton (Lance Henriksen and Adam Nelson respectively) is the exact opposite of Hitch and Cole. All in all, these folks are doing what they can to survive.
The film's pace is a little slow-moving and for a film with a 115 minute run time, it does feel longer. The direction does have a curiously episodic feel and seemed divided into 3 acts. But this is not a negative comment, since Harris' direction does manage to keep the screenplay interesting and the proceedings did flow nicely. The cinematography is quite impressive as the viewer is given quite a view of its western backdrop (shot mostly in New Mexico) and the costumes look pretty nifty and accurate. "Appaloosa" does feel like a contemporary western, that reveres its genre.
While the film does carry the usual cowboy trappings, the characters are quite compelling. I think the lack of a solid background for its lead characters proved to be an advantage since it maintains some hints of an enigma and the viewer gets to know each one as the film goes along. Harris does manage to flesh them out in a methodical way to favor certain habits, peculiar to each character, that strengthens their actions and reactions, which promotes emotion and serves up characters that breath and their body language says a lot about them. There are also some nicely placed touches of humor with Cole's interactions, whenever he finds himself grasping for the right word.
While the film does have its share of gunfights, which are shot realistically, there aren‘t a lot of them. But to its credit, they are nicely executed and kept me guessing as to who would survive that encounter. The film also manages to be a little unpredictable and the closing act does reinforce all the characteristics we've been privy to. It's a good credible pay off and it kept me on my toes, despite its somewhat slow-moving pace.
The performances of its cast is real good and matches Harris‘ great direction.There is strong chemistry between Mortensen and Harris and they seem to be in familiar territory, they did have some practice working together in the film "A History of Violence" and the two has all the dynamics needed to pull it off. Renee Zellweger is an excellent actress although I have to admit this is not her best role to display her talents, but she does make the most out of what she's got on her plate. Irons is the bad guy and well…he's very bad. Our "heroes" wouldn't be much if weren't for a good villain. The actors are indeed the right people for the right job.
The film's greatest strength is its simplicity and its respect for the western tradition is refreshingly cool. If you're expecting a "shoot-them-up" western then you're more than likely may become disappointed. However, it's slow-moving, but never dull screenplay does pay off and I think "Appaloosa" is a fine addition to the list of western films which stayed true to its traditions and style. Its simplicity is embodied in a tone that is very familiar to fans, realistic doses of violence with a warm, thought-provoking statement.
Highly Recommended! [4 Stars]
The Dvd does sport a great picture and sound quality. The picture is clean although there are some noise in some scenes especially in the dark scenes. The colors are a little muted but they look natural. The 5.1 Dolby Digital track is fitting for this type of film.
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