As Westerns go Appaloosa rides comfortably close to being a classic in the tradition of Unforgiven and 3:10 to Yuma. For fans of the genre, this is a masterful triumph for Ed Harris and a dynamite screen teaming with Viggo Mortensen.
In the ever-changing west of 1882 city marshal, Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and his deputy Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) are two tough dudes out to clean up lawless towns, a mission that takes them to Appaloosa. This small mining town has been taken over by a ruthless power-hungry land baron, Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), who, along with his band of thugs, has run the place into the ground. Although their initial efforts are met with some success, Cole and Hitch run into personal and professional conflict when a pretty mystery lady, Allison French (Renee Zellweger), blows into town. She complicates the picture, walking on the gray line between good and evil, and generally making the Marshal and his No. 2 overcome unwelcome obstacles in their fight to bring Bragg and his boys to justice. The film, based on the novel by Robert B. Parker, smartly details the unique problems inherent in bringing law and order to an unruly West.
Guiding his co-star Marcia Gay Harden in 2000's Pollock to an Oscar, Harris the director once again shows he has a natural affinity for steering his fellow actors, at least most of them, into superlative performances, which includes himself. In fact, the actor doesn't seem to be the least intimidated in playing the leading role in a movie he also co-wrote, directed and produced. Harris comes off as the embodiment of a dedicated lawman, who quietly goes about his business, determined to clean up the wild, wild West his way with the help of a loyal deputy. Mortensen is wonderfully authentic as Harris' partner in stopping sagebrush crime, looking like he's lived in those boots his entire life. Mortensen's demeanor and style in the role of Everett Hitch evokes a true feel for a place and time long gone. Together these two do not seem fake or awkwardly contemporary, but instead come off as the real deal. Irons is slippery and fun to watch as the devious outlaw Bragg, proving as he did in his Oscar-winning Reversal of Fortune there's nobody as good at playing subtle shades of bad. Zellweger, on the other hand, lets her acting show at every turn. To be fair, her character rarely adds up, but she does nothing to give any dimension beyond the obvious to a woman courting both sides of the law.
In only his second outing behind the camera in a decade, Harris shows Pollock was no fluke. Clearly enamored with the era, he nobly honors the great American western tradition, crafting a film that fits in with some of the best examples Hollywood has turned out. Some may complain that Appaloosa is long on talk and short on action, but the time director Harris devotes to letting his characters develop is far more satisfying than a lot of pointless violence that many Westerns wallow in. Like Howard Hawks' 1959 classic Rio Bravo, this is an honest tale of the camaraderie between a pair of lawmen simply trying to do a job. This is a director whose emphasis is focused on his cast, and he's picked them very carefully right down to the smallest roles, surrounding himself with a lot of terrific character actors. Just as impressive are the top notch production values including cinematographer Dean Semler's stunning New Mexico landscapes.
Hollywood.com rated this film 3 1/2 stars.