Ed Harris as Virgil Cole in Appaloosa

More Than Just Gun Smoke

Once upon a time, many decades a go the staple of the big screen was the western, but sadly tastes changed and westerns went out of fashion. Now days it's a rare occurrence for a western to be made although in a way that's not a bad thing as modern westerns tend to be big movies, built around a good storyline rather than some quickly thrown together nonsense. "Appaloosa" is one of these new westerns with a big almost epic feeling, a clever storyline and solid performances although unfortunately it does have some issues most notably that at times it's laborious, hard going as it focuses on the characters rather than the traditional western gun fights.

When rancher and local businessman Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons - Stealing Beauty) decides to take matters into his own hands and murders the Marshal and deputies of Appaloosa, the town leaders hand over control of their town to travelling lawmen Virgil Cole (Ed Harris - The Abyss) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen - A Perfect Murder). Determined to bring Bragg in for murder Cole and Hitch set about making their presence known. But when refined piano player Allison French (Renee Zellweger) shows up in town the relationship she forms with both Cole and Hitch starts to cloud matters, especially when Bragg, who having been arrested manages to escape.

Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen in Appaloosa

On face value "Appaloosa" is a story of law and order, with two peace makers hired to bring just that to a town where a local boss is starting to cause trouble as he flouts the law. As such it's not short on the standard western elements are two peace makers are menacing figures, comfortable using the gun and don't fear dieing whilst the bad guy is a land owner whose power and his gang of rough hands means he has no appreciation of the law. Interweaved into these standards are those moments of action, stand offs, gun fights, trouble and so on although they are never the focus but used as wonderful embellishments to the story.

That is on face value but unlike most classic westerns "Appaloosa" is a character study movie. We watch and learn about the relationship between Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch built over years of being partners. And then we watch how that changes when a woman enters their life, Allison French as she flirts with them both favouring the one who seems in control, and as such we also learn about what makes Miss French tick. Then on top of this you have the troublesome land owner Randall Bragg and again "Appaloosa" allows us to learn about his character, what makes him tick through his interactions with those around him.

Now this makes "Appaloosa" an interesting movie, one which requires your attention as you watch the characters build, the loyalty of Everett to Virgil, the self-centredness of Allison French but unfortunately it makes it also heavy going. In building up this character study director Ed Harris spends a lot of time on it, laboriously so and as such there are times when "Appaloosa" becomes bogged down by trying to build these relationships. That doesn't stop it being interesting just a bit slow in places where a bit of action and tension would have livened it up.

One thing is for certain and that is "Appaloosa" is one heck of a stylish movie with some brilliant cinematography which really sets the scene of this windy town, sand flying up in the air as the sun goes down over the horizon. It's almost beautiful and disguises some of the issues when the drama seems a little slow going. The style also reaches to the shoot outs and stand offs, and whilst more traditional in style the briefness of these moments really work to punctuate the storyline.

As well as directing and also writing the screenplay Ed Harris also takes on the central role of Virgil Cole a role he suits brilliantly. He's not a complex character but one whose almost simplicity makes him interesting. From his limited vocabulary through to his lack of fear of dieing makes him more than just a cowboy and quite menacing as he has one law, you do it his way or die. The collaboration with Viggo Mortensen as his deputy Everett also works, with Mortensen playing the strong silent cowboy brilliant, unfearing of anyone and reminded me in many ways of Val Kilmer's Doc Holliday in "Tombstone".

Aside from the impressive partnership of Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen, Renee Zellweger gives an impressive performance as the shallow Allison French, coming over not so much manipulative rather than someone who doesn't love the person she is with but the power which that person offers. And Jeremy Irons as Randall Bragg is a classic landowner villain with his disregard of the law, but restrains himself from making him an over the top bad guy, more someone who is surprisingly normal. And that is one of the good things about "Appaloosa" the characters whilst multi layered and fascinating are also quite normal, there not over the top caricatures, well except for the almost comical politicians of the town lead by Timothy Spall in a pleasantly amusing performance.

What this all boils down to is that "Appaloosa" is a very good western which tips it's Stetson to tradition whilst focusing more on the characters rather than the action. As such it is at times a bit hard going as it tries to develop relationships and characters. But the impressive styling, performances and those moments of action which punctuate the story make it so good. As such if you want a western with plenty of action then "Appaloosa" is probably not for you but if you want a western which is more than just gun smoke then it is a must watch.