"Appaloosa" takes an old-school Western and shows why the genre may be an endangered species, but it's far from dead.
Ed Harris wears many hats in this film: writer, director, producer and star, not to mention a cool cowboy hat. However, instead of looking for a hat rack, he pays tributes to the likes of John Ford, Sam Peckinpah and even John Wayne.
It's 1882 and in the frontier town of Appaloosa, but there's way more dust than tumbleweeds. Enter guns for hire Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen). They were brought in to stop the urban terrorism of mega ranch-owner and local gang leader Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons). In exchange for their help, the town leaders reluctantly allow them to impose martial law.
Cole and Hitch share a bond almost bordering on a marriage, but this ain't no brokeback. More like a fraternal bond, with each taking turns being the big brother. When Virgil stumbles on remembering a word, Everett is there to give it to him with the help of his West Point education. Everett may not be the alpha male, but he's definitely the more cerebral.
Just when you think things are black and white though, a red-haired shade of gray arrives in the form of Allie French (Renée Zellweger). French catches the eye of Virgil, with her sweet smile and polite sophistication, but we come to realize she's the archetype of a Jerry Springer guest. Clingy and manipulative, she throws an interesting wrench into Virgil and Everett's friendship. You almost expect Dr. Phil to show up.
Harris may have been the driver of this vehicle, but it's Mortenson who is the one man pit crew, serving as the bow (or 8 gauge shotgun) that ties everything together, whether it's helping keep Harris' Virgil in check during a violent outrage or doing the noble thing in the end to help his friend. Kudos in casting for taking Zellweger over a cuter, but less qualified actress. She's more than a damsel in distress. She's a damsel who is distress and shows why she deserves equal billing.
As with all Westerns, actions speak louder than words or CGI. With dry, witty dialogue lifted from writer Robert B. Parker of "Spencer for Hire" fame, we're reminded how there was a time when men hugged with words instead of arms.
Billy Tatum gives "Appaloosa" 4 (out of 5) Scoops.
"Appaloosa." MPAA rating: R for some violence and language. Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes. In general release.