Based on Robert Parker novel, this Western manages to use the tropes of its genre mostly to its advantage. Ed Harris (who also directed) stars as the no-nonsense gun-for-hire Virgil Cole, brought to town to quell the unruly Bragg clan. His right-hand man, Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) slings an 8 gauge better than anyone and the two are hired to restore peace to the fledgling town of Appaloosa — governed by a limp mayor and council.
None of these basic plot points fall outside the typical Western tale, nor does the appearance of the coy mistress, Mrs. French (Renee Zellweger).
What makes Appaloosa special are the subtleties. The partnership between the two gunmen is simple and deep. Their trust extends beyond just “he saved my life” scenario, though there is that too. They trust each other in life. They give and take advice. When Cole, an avid reader, is stuck trying to come up with a ‘big word’, he turns to his confidant Hitch – always solid and never failing. When the traveling party is threatened by Apache, it is Hitch whose cool head prevails. And when the frolicsome Mrs. French bounces between lovers, it is Hitch whose even keel directs Cole. Indeed Mortensen steals the show. Harris is solid but it is all about the wit in every detail Mortensen brings to the screen. The smaller role of Jeremy Irons as the terrorizing Bragg is also strong.
But there were problems with the film as well, not the least of which was Zellweger. In addition to looking horribly puffy and unattractive, her acting fell far short — and it was painfully noticeable among such giants. She lacked the depth that others brought to their characters, something important in a genre film.
There was also an unevenness of pace throughout. It wasn’t fatal, just a bit tiresome at points. Still a good job for Harris’ second attempt behind the camera. To his credit, he did manage to find some interesting photography in a generally worn out setting. But there was still a little too much clunk-of-the-boots-on-the-porch-with-jangle-of-the-spurs sound and the score made little sense. Composer Jeff Beal was clearly trying for the Lalo Schifrin strains of spaghetti westerns but they fell flat. Even his musical joke surrounded Chin the innkeeper was poorly timed and clunky. Lastly, Harris also should have cut the bookend narration at appears only briefly at the beginning and end of the film. It did not fit, wasn’t necessary and sullied Mortensen’s performance.
Ultimately, the film is perfectly enjoyable to watch. Mortensen is particularly fun to see. It’s just a bit disappointing to see it lack a few details that could have made it a great film, instead of a good film.