Friday, January 16, 2009


I love westerns. I really do. From the classics (THE SEARCHERS, RED RIVER, WINCHESTER '73) to modern efforts (UNFORGIVEN, JESSE JAMES, 3:10 TO YUMA), it's a genre that never fails to intrigue me. I was obsessed with HBO's brilliant show DEADWOOD and I still lament the early cancellation that that show received; it was as bold and unique as anything that has ever been aired on television. APPALOOSA (***1/2), which was co-written and directed by Ed Harris and released last fall, is an extremely solid genre entry for anyone who's a fan of this milieu. Harris stars as Virgil Cole, a gun/sherrif for hire who rides into the dusty town of Appaloosa with his shotgun-toting sidekick Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen, one of my favorite actors), looking to find work. They are hired by the town organizers to take out the human trash that has been infecting the area, chiefly, Randall Bragg (a sneering Jeremy Irons) and his gang of thieves and murderers. The set-up is perfect: two men who are quick with guns are assigned to take care of business. But a wrench is thrown into their plan with the arrival of the saucy Allison French (Renee Zellweger), a seemingly dignified woman who comes to town looking to start her live over after her husband's recent death. Cole falls in love with French almost immediately. He's a man who has spent his life frequenting brothels rather than looking for a wife. Cole and Hitch are best friends and APPALOOSA, at its heart, is a buddy movie, much like most westerns tend to be. Without divulging too much of the plot, the film revolves around Cole and Hitch's efforts to bring down Bragg and his men and retain peace throughout Appaloosa. There are some nice shoot-outs but this isn't an modern day action movie spiced up by western locales like last year's 3:10 TO YUMA. APPALOOSA is more of a character piece, taking its time to explore the friendship between Cole and Hitch. All of the bullets fired in this film count (and hurt), much like they did in Kevin Costner's underrated OPEN RANGE from a few years ago. The dialogue between Cole and Hitch has a witty, crackling quality and all of the performances are top-notch, even from Zellweger, who hasn't been utilized to great effect in recent years. The film looks nice but isn't overly pretty; the cinematography by Dean Selmer (WE WERE SOLDIERS, DANCES WITH WOLVES, APOCALYPTO) is simple but effective. Harris, as always, is intense and focused, and Mortensen, who was brilliant in 2007's EASTERN PROMISES, downplays his role as Hitch, bring a level of mystery to his character. APPALOOSA is solid in every respect and extremely enjoyable in an old-fashioned way.

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