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Appaloosa (2008) Print E-mail
Friday, 19 September 2008
ImageDespite the success last year of the remake of “3:10 to Yuma,” it’s not likely theatrical Westerns are making a comeback, but at least maybe we can get a good new one every now and then—like “Appaloosa.” It may not be outstanding, but it’s solid and entertaining, and particularly well acted. The structure is a bit lumpy, with two climaxes, and there’s too much standin’ around and tradin’ laconic quips between the action scenes. Still, it’s a welcome, refreshing change from all the big-city action thrillers of the year.

Ed Harris not only stars as Virgil Cole, a traveling gun for hire, but he also directs and co-wrote the screenplay with Robert Knott from the best-selling novel by Robert P. Parker. His father Bob turns up as a judge, and Ed even sings one of the two songs over the closing credits. Viggo Mortensen is cool, amusing and tough as Cole’s partner, Everett Hitch. They may be guns for hire, but they always work on the side of the law—even when they have to make the laws themselves. They carry with them a list of just such laws, in case the town they’re cleaning up doesn’t have existing laws that put the power into the lawmen’s (i.e. Cole and Hitch’s) hands.

The movie is not a revisionist Western in the vein of “The Wild Bunch” and/or “Unforgiven,” but instead features a standard, familiar story with standard, familiar characters—and here, those are virtues. (There is even a handful of hostile Indians.) You could easily imagine Gary Cooper as Virgil Cole—he talks a little more than Coop’s legend has it that he did—and Henry Fonda as Hitch. These are gimlet-eyed, straight-talking lawmen, very good at what they do, very much disinclined to become involved in the daily life of the towns they straighten out. In fact, they’re quite similar to Robert B. Parker’s most familiar characters, Spenser and Hawk—strong men with their own code of ethics, who trade dry jokes, extremely proficient in the skills their profession requires. They vary a bit from Spenser and Hawk; here, Cole has a quick, violent temper (which we see demonstrated just once), and he’s a shade pretentious. Sometimes he has to ask the better-educated Hitch for a specific word, but he was already groping for just that le mot juste. He also reads Emerson in his off hours, nodding sagely when he agrees with what he’s reading.

As the movie begins, they’re just arriving in the town of Appaloosa. (Why it’s named for that breed of horse is a mystery; maybe it’s explained in the novel.) The local sheriff and a couple of deputies rode out to arrest two of the men working for big landowner Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons)—who promptly shoots them dead, right in front of his men. We learn that the Bragg men are running roughshod over the townsfolk of Appaloosa. B and his men are why the town aldermen, Raines (Tom Bower), May (James Gammon) and Olson (Timothy Spall) have sent for Cole and Hitch. The aldermen are powerless, and cowed by Braggs’ claim to be a pal of U.S. President Chester A. Arthur.
After negotiations, Cole becomes town marshal and Hitch his deputy. Cole carries a well-cared-for Colt .45 and Hitch an enormous eight-gage shotgun, plus other weapons as needed. They quickly establish their presence and power but taking on a couple of Bragg’s men who were pissing on the floor of the local saloon. The survivor of Braggs’ group rushes back to tell his boss all about it. Bragg soon shows up with a lot of help, but Cole and Hitch’s cool confidence and obvious deadly skills make him back down—for now. They scare off a couple of Braggs’ men who are hanging around a nearby mesa, keeping an eye on things.

In this long pause (while Bragg mulls things over), Mrs. Allie Finch (Renée Zellweger) arrives by train. She catches Hitch’s eye almost immediately, but he’s cautious about approaching her, but Cole isn’t. In fact, he’s a little bashful and goofy around her, amusing Hitch, who has sized her up better than Cole ever does. She’s not a bad person, but she is opportunistic; she’s attracted to Cole’s power as much as to the man himself. And this tendency to drift to the power figure eventually causes problems.

Not a whole heck of a lot happens for a while in the middle of “Appaloosa;” the Shelton Brothers, Ring (Lance Henriksen) and Mackie (Adam Nelson), old pals of Cole’s, arrive in Appaloosa just before a major trial. They’re also hired guns, but this time, they’re hired by Bragg.

“Appaloosa” is a bit over-extended; it’s fun for a while watching Cole and Hitch lounging about on the wooden sidewalks, trading amusing lines while their steely eyes miss nothing. But there’s a bit too much of this, and the movie drags a little. Hitch has found his own (temporary) woman, Katie (Ariadna Gil in the Katy Jurado role); they’re frequently in bed together, giving Hitch the opportunity to express his doubts about Allie. Cole is confused by his feelings for Allie; he’s only been with whores and the like, has never thought about settlin’ down, but Allie makes him see things differently. Perhaps incorrectly. She does seem a bit too interested in Bragg to suit Hitch.

“Appaloosa” develops its familiar story slowly but carefully; it must have been difficult to cut it down to the running time it has, even though it is a shade too long. Harris is a skilled director, but he also has material that’s nearly director-proof, at least with this cast, including Harris himself, of course. When they were filming “A History of Violence,” Harris had just finished reading Parker’s novel, and offered Mortensen the co-starring role. He couldn’t have found a more appropriate choice.

Cole and Hitch are very similar, but they’re not identical. Hitch went to West Point, served in the Army during the Civil War and for a while thereafter, and has since been wandering the west, searching for—what? He’s not sure, but for the last 12 years, it’s been being at Cole’s side. Cole is sure—sure of his abilities, sure that he knows right from wrong, and sure he can enforce the difference. He’s a less complicated man than Hitch, but doesn’t really know that. More could have been done with his quick temper, but that’s a side issue; Harris is completely believable and—this is crucial—likeable as the tough Virgil Cole. As a director, he’s not flashy or, fortunately, “creative;” he tells the story straightforwardly, he allows the actors to “breathe,” including the enjoyably hammy Timothy Spall. Everyone, including a relaxed but flinty Jeremy Irons, is clearly having a great time playing cowboy. And it’s great to see Lance Henriksen, Harris’s costar from “The Right Stuff,” back in a solid, interesting role in a major movie. He looks like he was chipped out of the same stone as Harris and Mortensen.

The settings are excellent. Cinematographer Dean Semler (“Get Smart,” “Dances with Wolves,” “The Road Warrior” etc.) fills the wide screen with the dry, dusty landscape of New Mexico; this is a great-looking movie that, even so, never indulges in “beautiful” shots. It’s as tough and hardy a landscape as the tough, hardy men at the center of the story. The town of Appaloosa is well-designed—there are buildings made of lumber, some of adobe and a couple of brick; the fronts of the buildings don’t quite line up, giving the town a satisfyingly improvised look. (Production designer: Waldemar Kalinowski) The entire cast has a hand-picked quality, with scruffy looking guys of all ages working for Bragg, a couple of lawmen from elsewhere who look every bit as rough-hewn but professional as Cole and Hitch.

We’re invited to admire these tough lawmen, even to fear them a little, even to occasionally laugh at them—the movie is thoroughly honest in its treatment of all its characters. Some of them bend under pressure all too easily, whether it be pressure by Bragg and his men, or by the newly-arrived, well-armed lawmen. Despite its weaknesses, there’s something very satisfying about “Appaloosa.” Ed Harris, as director and co-writer, was not out to tell us the truth about the Old West; he was out to make an entertaining Western of the old school—at the end, one of the heroes even rides off into the sunset (and tells us he’s doing so)—and he has done that. Once Harris and Mortensen show up (there’s an opening sequence without them), you can feel yourself relaxing; these guys know what they’re doing, and so do the filmmakers. If you like Westerns, you owe it to yourself to see this satisfying movie on the big screen.

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