Saturday, October 18, 2008


Westerns are rare on the big-screen these days. Hollywood cranks out fewer than a handful each year. Most are either the modern day kind like the Cohen Brothers’ “No Country for Old Men” or the hybrid variety like Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood.” Basically, westerns had worn out their welcome long before Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” won the Best Picture Oscar in 1992. Most westerns inherently depict white supremacy on the frontier. Sure, whites alone did not settle the old West, but Hollywood usually confined its tribute to white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestants pioneers. Indeed, as the sun began to set on the genre in the 1980s, the western found itself out of step with our multicultural society that embraced political correctness.

Writer, director, & actor Ed Harris’ new horse opera “Appaloosa” (**** out of ****) resembles those predictable but satisfying 1950’s westerns with Gary Cooper, Fred MacMurray, Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea, George Montgomery, and Rory Calhoun. This beautifully lensed law and order western dramatizes the themes of camaraderie, honor, sexual politics, and corruption. In other words, “Appaloosa” is very formal and old-fashioned. In some instances, the Robert Knott & Ed Harris screenplay takes a different tack, particularly in its depiction of frontier dames. Moreover, Harris has assembled a splendid cast, including Viggo Mortensen, Renee Zellweger, Jeremy Irons, Lance Henriksen, and Timothy Spall, that looks comfortable in a 19th century setting.

Seasoned lawman Virgil Cole (Ed Harris of “The Rock”) and former U.S. Calvary officer Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen of “Hidalgo”) have known each other for twelve years. Hitch narrates the movie at the beginning and talks about how that he first met Virgil and bailed him out of a scrape with his double-barreled, eight gauge shotgun. Afterward, they ‘partnered up in the peacemaking’ business. Since then they’ve made a career of taming tough towns. Everett doesn’t foresee any changes. He is in for a surprise. Sure enough, unforeseen changes alter their lives. They ride into the desolate New Mexico Territory in 1882 after Virgil’s good friend Marshall Jack Bell (stunt man Robert Jauregui of “Posse”) and his two deputies died trying to serve warrants at the Bragg Ranch. Randall R. Bragg (Jeremy Irons of “Dead Hard with a Vengeance”) rules the territory like a despot. The citizens of Appaloosa are weary of his tyranny. Bragg and his drovers have been taking anything they want without paying. They have even killed a man from Chicago and raped his wife.

As the film opens, Appaloosa City Marshall Bell and his deputies ride out to Bragg’s ranch. When Bell’s deputies try to arrest the suspects, Bragg blows them slap out of their saddles with his Winchester before they can brandish their own six-guns. Meanwhile, the train deposits in Appaloosa an alluring widow woman, Allison French (Renee Zellweger of “Leatherheads”), who plays the piano as well as she plays with men. Virgil takes a shine to her. Eventually, one of Bragg’s men, a younger cowhand, informs on his boss. Cole and Hitch sneak out to Bragg’s ranch and abduct the rancher for the trial. The judge sentences Bragg to swing by the neck, and Virgil escorts him via train to the hanging. Things take a turn for the worst. Gunslinger Ring Shelton (Lance Henriksen of “Aliens”) kidnaps Allison and threatens to blow her brains out if Cole doesn’t release Bragg. Reluctantly, Cole capitulates, but Everett and he hit the trail after them with bloody results. Good villains make good westerns. Randall Bragg is a cold-blooded dastard from the start and cheats the hangman through an interesting turn of events.

“Appaloosa” qualifies as a traditional town taming tale. Virgil and Everett face the usual quota of tough-talking showdowns and sudden death shoot-outs with outlaws as well as hostile reservation jumping Apaches. The Indian encounter labels “Appaloosa” as a traditional western rather than a postmodern sagebrusher like “Dances with Wolves.” On the other hand, the depiction of women is revisionist. Prostitutes win greater respect than the stereotypical good woman. “Appaloosa” lacks the score of “Silverado,” looks more like “Pale Rider.” Although our heroes are tall and dark, they are far from silent when they aren’t swapping lead with their opponents. Not only do they engage in chummy conservations, but they also make amusing comments about the heroine and the villains. While the action is the standard fare, a clever undercurrent of humor permeates Appaloosa” and that makes it more than a typical dustraiser. Indeed, in some respects, Viggo Mortensen and Ed Harris capture the cowhide chemistry of Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott in Sam Peckinpah’s immortal classic “Ride the High County.”

“Appaloosa” represents four-time Oscar nominee actor Ed Harris’s sophomore venture behind the camera as a director; he starred in and helmed “Pollack,” (2000) a biography about the famous American painter Jackson Pollack. Harris puts emphasis on period detail in “Appaloosa” and directs the action without calling attention to his technique. A moment stands out when an iron horse locomotive chugs through the arid, sun-baked territory and a large mountain cat saunters into view. The cougar sniffs the air, and watches the train diminish in to the distance. Indeed, it amounts to just a mere moment in time, but it conveys a wealth of atmosphere. Western fans may recall a 1964 Marlon Brando oater called “The Appaloosa” about Mexicans that stole the eponymous pony and Brando tracking them down. This “Appaloosa” has nothing to do with the venerable Brando movie. Harris and Knott drew their screenplay from Robert B. Parker’s novel. Compelling dialogue, realistic situations, subtle humor, and strong performances, especially from gimlet-eyed Ed Harris, make “Appaloosa” a hypnotic horse opera.

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