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Set in 1882 in the Old West territory of New Mexico, Appaloosa opens up with a typical Western set-up. The city’s Marshall is killed in cold-blood by the familiar band of outlaws, thus prompting the town to hire some new law enforcers to bring these villains to justice. Four-time Oscar nominee Ed Harris (“Pollock”) stars as the new city Marshall Virgil Cole and Oscar nominee Viggo Mortensen (“Eastern Promises”) stars as his partner Hitch. They establish a few new laws as part of their quirky methods for being peacekeepers in this lawless town. That’s about as conventional to the western genre as this film gets.
Based on Robert B. Parker’s novel of the same name, this is really a character-driven story about honor and camaraderie between friends. Cole and Hitch met twelve years ago when they both were the last ones standing at a gunfight. In the lawless Old West they’ve made a living protecting towns that are trying to mature into a lawful society. Cole says, “I don’t kill people for a living, I enforce the law, but killing is sometimes a by-product.” By the time they arrive at the town of Appaloosa, it’s clear they know each other so well that they don’t have to talk very much. In fact, a few conversations happen with just quick glances and nods, suggesting there’s an unspoken understanding between them.
Things settle down quite quickly once the town gives them supreme authority, which is basically “whatever Cole says, goes, or you’re shot.” This keeps the bandits away for the time being. Then an unexpected element is thrown in that can potential cause as much trouble as a bandit: a woman. Academy-Award winning actress Renee Zellweger steps off the train as Allie, a recent, though not terribly sad, widow who has Cole at “hello.” She is clearly a survivor who takes a liking to Cole, but also flirts with Hitch, thus potentially causing problems in their decade-old friendship. When the two men finally catch the outlaw leader Randall Bragg, played by Oscar winner Jeremy Irons, Allie proves to be the type of dangerous distraction that anyone serving in law enforcement hopes to never be confronted with.
Appaloosa doesn’t seek to expand or parody the conventions of the Western genre, but rather tell an adult story set in the Old West. The gunfights are minimal with the lead character Cole himself stating, “that didn’t last very long” because everyone could shoot well. See this film for the solid performances given by Harris and Mortensen who know how to say a lot on film without always talking. Also, the adult humor between them when Allie is thrown in (such as Cole being asked to pick-out fabric patterns or Allie complaining that he is a workaholic lawman) is funny. The one complaint is the character of Allie is not convincing enough as a girl that men would actually want to fight over. She isn’t especially beautiful, plays the piano as her one skill, and isn’t very faithful to any man, whether they’re the good guy, bad guy, or dead husband. Overall, you should find this film enjoyable if you liked last year’s 3:10 To Yuma.