Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen are both on the right side of the law in “Appaloosa,” but the chemistry they shared as adversaries in 2005’s “A History of Violence” remains.
Good thing, too. Aside from the some striking scenery, their comfortable dynamic is just about all that makes “Appaloosa” worth watching.
Harris, as director, producer, co-writer and star, has come up with an old-school Western that feels, by turns, hokey and boringly episodic. And for a movie that takes place during a time when folks were heading West with bold dreams, “Appaloosa” never really goes anywhere.
Based on the novel by Robert B. Parker, the film finds Harris’ Virgil Cole taking over the lawless New Mexico town of Appaloosa as marshal in 1882. By his side, as always, is his trusted deputy, Everett Hitch (Mortensen), who travels with him from place to place, keeping the peace. Cole is all instinct, Hitch is the thinker.
Their routine consists of showing up and laying down the law, then kicking back on porches and in saloons, laconically trading one-liners. (A running joke in which Cole grasps for a meaty word like “disparaging” or “commiserate,” and Hitch bemusedly provides it, isn’t all that cute the first time.) But their reverie is disrupted by a couple of forces.
One is the villainous rancher Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), whose murder of the last marshal led to Cole’s hiring. Irons is supposed to be the most fearsome figure in the film: He’s an unscrupulous killer and he’s got money and power on his side, a dangerous combination. But his accent is so thick and hammy, it sounds as if he’s doing a bad impression of Daniel Day-Lewis in “There Will Be Blood,” which takes you completely out of the movie every time he opens his mouth. He never threatens to drink anyone’s milkshake, but you suspect that if Appaloosa had a diner, he just might.
Then there’s flirty widow Allison French (Renee Zellweger), who is new in town. A pianist with proper manners and fine dresses, she’s obviously not from ’round these parts. But who she is never becomes truly clear. She’s more of an idea, and a cliched, misogynistic one at that: the needy, manipulative woman who has always got to have a man in her life to validate herself. Zellweger typically squints and smirks her way through the performance, but then again, she doesn’t have much more to work with. (Harris wrote the script with Robert Knott.)
Still, Cole falls for Allie, as she likes to be called, even though as a lawman, he should be mistrustful of everyone. And Hitch worries that she’s becoming a distraction to Cole, even as Bragg’s men continue their assaults on the town. That’s pretty much how “Appaloosa” progresses: There’s some sort of shooting, followed by a bit of romance in the downtime, and so on.
Harris, though, seems well-suited to this time in history and to its rhythms. He certainly has the look of a classic Western hero, his craggy face and piercing blue eyes peering out from beneath his hat. As in 2000’s “Pollock,” his first directing effort (which earned him an Academy Award nomination for best actor), he seems drawn to material about complicated men. Mortensen, of course, is a complete chameleon who can shape himself to any role, be it a hero in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy or an enforcer in “Eastern Promises.” Here, he’s all understatement.
If “Appaloosa” had focused more on the friendship between Cole and Hitch, it would have been far more engaging. Smart, honest movies about male relationships, in all their complex forms, are hard to come by — especially ones that aren’t just adolescent, Apatow-style “bromances” or comic book-inspired fantasies. It’s as if an opportunity just rode off into the sunset.
Stars: Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Jeremy Irons, Renee Zellweger
Behind the Scenes: Directed by Ed Harris
Time: 115 minutes
Rated: R (profanity and violence)