November 8, 2008 -- Like seeing an old friend again, a real Western movie once again graced the screen of a theater in Laramie Wyoming. “Appaloosa” is a traditional western, but there are a lot of plot twists that take the viewer on an interesting journey into the nature of civilization, justice, friendship and love. The film's leisurely pace reflects the rhythm of the distant past depicted in the film. The film's subtle humor and detailed character studies reflect careful attention to detail and superb craftsmanship. The film is based on a novel by famed murder mystery writer Robert B. Parker (writer of the Spenser and Jesse Stone novels).
Lawmen-for-hire Virgil Cole (played by Ed Harris of “National Treasure: Book of Secrets,” who also writes and directs this film) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen of “Eastern Promises”) ride into the New Mexico territorial mining town of Appaloosa and offer to clean up the town, as they have in many other Western towns. The city fathers reluctantly agree to their contract for services, a contract which gives the two men authority to rule the town as they wish. They immediately start work by killing three rowdy men who work for Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons of “Eragon”) the richest man in the area. Bragg enjoys being above the law. He killed the town's last lawman Marshall Jack Bell (Robert Jauregui) and his deputy in cold blood. He figures to do the same with Cole and Hitch, but they are tougher than he can imagine.
Shortly after Cole and Hitch are hired a pretty young widow moves to town, Allison French (Renée Zellweger of “Leatherheads”). Several men are immediately attracted to the stylish woman, including Bragg, Cole and Hitch. Alli immediately causes a strain on the friendship between Cole and Hitch. This strain is displayed through a lot of subtle cues shown between the two men. This strain is also the source of much of the film's subtle humor. Alli's arrival in Appaloosa upsets the friendship between Cole and Hitch. Cole decides he wants to buy a house, the first he has ever owned, and settle down with Alli. Alli, however, may not exactly be the settling down type, however. She is attracted to Alpha Males. Of course the simmering conflict between Cole and Bragg, the town's two Alpha Males, has to come to a head at sometime, and it does, but not in the way you would expect.
Another couple of wild cards show up in the form of hired gunslinging brothers Ring and Mackie Shelton (Lance Henriksen of “Aliens” and Adam Nelson of “Mystic River”). Yet more wild cards show up in the form of a raiding party of Indian warriors. All of these wild cards produce some brief, violent action scenes. There are some shootouts, but there is also negotiation, politics and the treacherous waters of sex, love and friendship to navigate before the end. In one interesting scene Alli debates Cole about his statement that he doesn't lie. She tries to get him to admit that he has lied to women. Cole angrily cuts off the debate. Immediately thereafter he violently attacks a drunk in the bar for no particular reason, severely injuring the man. When a town official complains to Hitch about Cole's behavior, Hitch reminds the town official that when the town hired Cole they also got his dark side, and that is part of what makes him the lawman he is. The line between being a lawman for hire and being a gunman for hire to the highest bidder is a thin one. It has been noted that the thrill of a teenager on a high speed joyride is not a lot different than the thrill some police get from a high speed pursuit.
The lead actors, Mortenson, Harris and Zellweger all give excellent performances. The intricate relationships between their three characters are often expressed with subtle facial expressions and body language. This kind of high-level professional acting is often missing from modern films, especially action films. These three actors are a pleasure to watch. Also good are Ariadna Gil of “Pan's Labyrinth” who plays Hitch's girlfriend, Katie, Irons and Timothy Spall of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” who plays a nervous town leader, Phil Olson. This film was shot mostly in New Mexico and there is some marvelous outdoor scenery. Locations included sandstone cliffs near the Chama River, the Rio Grande River and the Cerro Pelon Ranch in Galisteo. One scene was filmed in Austin, Texas. It is great to see a well-crafted new Western. This film rates a B.
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