No sound lightens a moviegoer's heart more than pounding hoofbeats before the opening credits. A Western is about to begin, and, if everything goes right, nothing can be better than that.
"Appaloosa," the latest film to start with that familiar sound, does much right, but not everything. Based on a novel by Robert B. Parker, it tells the story of how a woman comes between two men in the New Mexico territory of 1882. But the tale's virtues are undercut by the way that critical female role has been handled.
Directed, co-written by and starring Ed Harris, "Appaloosa" is in large part a satisfying example of the genre because it respects tradition and understands how to modernize familiar moves. And, in Harris and co-star Viggo Mortensen, it has two actors who beautifully play the kind of tough, laconic, unflappable men without whom Westerns could not exist.
"Appaloosa" opens not with either of these gentlemen but with another iconic figure, the amoral psychotic rancher, played with appropriate evil panache by Jeremy Irons. His Randall Bragg, the leader of a horde of skanky lowlifes, has so terrorized the otherwise God-fearing town of Appaloosa that the city fathers feel they must take exceptional measures. Which is where our boys come in.
For about a dozen years, Mortensen's Everett Hitch tells us in a brief voice-over, he and Virgil Cole (Harris) have run a tidy lawmen-for-hire operation. If your town is a mess, you hand absolute power over to these guys and, for a fee, they clean the town up and move on. As top man Cole puts it, "I don't kill people for a living. I enforce the law. Killing is sometimes a byproduct."
One of the pleasures of the Robert Knott and Harris adaptation of the Parker novel is its economical use of language. When one character says, "It's hard to like a man who doesn't drink a little," another is likely to reply, "Hard but not impossible."
"Appaloosa" has been a passion project for Harris for a number of years, and his performance is forceful and nuanced. Cole might represent law and order and have the moxie to face down a mob of 20 miscreants, but that doesn't stop him from having a truly psychotic temper or taking an interest in improving his vocabulary.
As played by Mortensen, who memorably co-starred with Harris in "A History of Violence," Hitch is just as weathered a character and has notably eccentric facial hair thrown in. The two collaborate so well, in fact, that the real love match of "Appaloosa" is between them and no one else.
It's unfortunate for everyone concerned, and for the film, that the train chugs into town one day, as trains in Westerns do, and deposits the conveniently widowed Allison French (Renee Zellweger), a young woman who has come to Appaloosa with an extensive wardrobe, some piano playing skill and little else.
Given the marked lack of piano-playing women with extensive wardrobes in Appaloosa, both Cole and Hitch are smitten with the newcomer. Which really is too bad. Although the publicity notes insist that Allison French is "beguiling," she is anything but.
With a simpering manner that offers all the charm and seductiveness of a potato casserole, she is not only unconvincing as the object of multiple suitors, she is so off-putting a character that you wince when she comes on the screen. Although the Oscar-winning Zellweger has been excellent in some roles, this is not a part she connects to at all.
French is such a distraction that it's difficult to focus on the rest of "Appaloosa's" plot, which involves the attempt to bring that reprobate rancher to justice and the working out of various romantic entanglements.
One of the best lines in "Appaloosa" script talks about how fate has a way of making "the unforeseeable that which your life becomes." The way French's presence derails the entire enterprise is apparently something no one had the vision to foresee.