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Overall Rating

Awesome: 6.52%
Worth A Look78.26%
Just Average: 10.87%
Pretty Crappy: 4.35%
Sucks: 0%

5 reviews, 16 user ratings

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by Peter Sobczynski

"The Guns"
4 stars

On the rare occasion these days when a foolhardy soul is able to convince a studio to put up the money to make a film in which Stetson hats, six-shooters, shots of whiskey and shootouts at high noon are among the ingredients, the end result usually falls into one of two categories--either it is a “Western” in which the movie itself essentially serves as a revisionist commentary on the mythos of the genre (something along the lines of “Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid,” “Unforgiven” or “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”) or it is a “western” in which the genre deconstruction takes a back seat to the simple act of telling a story that just happens to take place during those times (such as the underrated “Open Range” or the recent remake of “3:10 to Yuma”). Ed Harris’ “Appaloosa,” his first stint in the director’s chair since making his debut behind the camera in 2000 with “Pollock,” is a film that definitely belongs in the latter category--it only wants to tell a good and strong story with good and strong actors without delving into the thematic complexities found in “Westerns.” Some may look upon that as a flaw or a sign of laziness of Harris’ part--why go to the bother of making a film of this type if you aren’t going to comment on the genre as a whole?--but I prefer to think of it as a virtue because by telling his story in such a straightforward manner, Harris proves that there is still some life yet in a genre that has essentially been left for dead for nearly four decades at this point.

Set in 1882, the film opens as the marshal of the town of Appaloosa, New Mexico arrives with a couple of deputies at the compound of Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), a no-goodnik who claims to be a friend of the president and who has designs on a local copper mine, to arrest a couple of his men for murdering a local man and raping and killing his wife. Needless to say, Bragg can’t really spare them so his response is to gun down the three interlopers in cold blood. Soon after this incident, free-lance lawman Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and his longtime sidekick Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) ride into town and offer their services to the town leaders (led by the great Timothy Spall) as long as they agree to essentially turn control of Appaloosa over to them. They do and Virgil and Everett quickly prove that they are worth it by going to a bar that three of Bragg’s men are trashing and settle their hash quickly and decisively. As a result of this, Bragg himself comes down to meet with Virgil to see if they can come to some kind of arrangement--since it takes only one look in his steely eyes to realize that the word “arrangement” is not in his vocabulary, it quickly becomes apparent that a showdown between the two is imminent.

Before getting to that point, however, there are a couple of complications on the horizons. One comes when another one of Bragg’s hands agrees to testify that Bragg killed the marshal and his men in court--Virgil and Everett use this to arrest Bragg in the middle of the night and lock him up, a move that forces them to keep a constant guard to prevent his men from busting him out before a judge can arrive to perform the trial. The other is marked by the arrival of the seemingly proper widow Allie Finch (Renee Zellweger), a woman whom Virgil immediately and unexpectedly finds himself smitten with--so much so, in fact, that before too long, the two finds themselves preparing to set up a home together. Everett is amused and intrigued by this development but soon discovers that she may not be the pristine flower that she claims to be. Eventually, these two developments come together when Bragg is convicted and dispatches a couple of hired goons to nab Allie to ensure his escape--the combination of this move and Virgil’s subsequent discovery as to Allie’s true character leads to a number of stand-offs, both the traditional kind featuring men with guns as well as more emotional ones as well.

“Appaloosa” is based on a novel by the great writer Robert B. Parker and as a result, it is somehow appropriate that the dialogue and characters wind up dominating the proceedings. Some of the most exciting scenes in the film, in fact, consist of nothing more than the sight of two or three fascinating characters sitting in a room together and trading the choice dialogue supplied by the screenplay adaptation from Harris & Robert Knott. Harris and Mortensen, who played off of each other brilliantly in “A History of Violence,” make for a wonderful team--from the ways that they communicate with each other with nothing more than a grunt or a knowing look to the way in which Everett is always helping Virgil when he tries to deploy 10-dollar words that he doesn’t quite have a grasp on, you immediately get the sense that these are two guys who have developed a long and real friendship indeed. The early confrontation between Virgil and Bragg is equally compelling--so much so, in fact, that it actually packs more of a punch than most of the conventionally violent scenes. And while it takes her a little while to get into the swing of things--some of her early moments are just a little too cutesy--Zellweger eventually settles down and gives us an interesting look at a woman who is, shall we say, one of the great pragmatists of the Old West.

Although “Appaloosa” does favor these quieter and more character-driven scene, that doesn’t mean that Harris has totally abandoned the tenets of the western genre--instead, he is using a smaller scale to deploy them that fits well with the general tone of the material. When we get to the big shoot-out between Virgil and Everett and Braggs’ men, it isn’t the long and elaborately choreographed Peckinpah-style ballet of bullets and blood that another director might have presented us with--instead, it is staged as a quick and brutish exchange of gunfire that leaves everyone on the ground in varying degrees of pain (which is probably how most actual shootout turned out back then) and inspires one of the best exchanges of dialogue. (“That happened quick.” “Everyone could shoot.”) Likewise, Harris and cinematographer Dean Semler have presented us with a visual approach that eschews the wide-open vistas for a more intimate style that is refreshingly unique. (Of course, they pull off the occasional coups as well--there is a lovely image of a bobcat appearing out of nowhere on a mountain ridge to bear witness to a train heading into trouble.)

“Appaloosa” is not a great western by any means--no one will be ranking it alongside such all-time classics of the form as “Rio Bravo,” “The Wild Bunch” or “Unforgiven” anytime soon. However, it is a very good one that merely wants to tell a strong and compelling story in a clean and focused style without getting too stylized or revisionist for its own good. For Ed Harris, who almost lost the chance to see it play in theaters when New Line went belly-up a few months ago, it demonstrates that “Pollock” was not a simply a fluke and that he has some considerable chops behind the camera. For the rest of us, it proves that as long as there are filmmakers out there willing to give the genre the time, artistry and respect that Harris has, the reports of the death of the western may indeed be exaggerated after all.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=17658&reviewer=389
originally posted: 10/03/08 00:25:49
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

9/13/17 morris campbell good western 4 stars
8/20/10 action movie fan w much better carson city and hannie caulder are 2 stars
12/04/09 Madjack Above average. Good actors. Evocative ending. 4 stars
8/02/09 mr.mike "Meep" said it - Western buffs may add a star. 3 stars
7/04/09 Dan Terrific movie, great acting and dialogue, I enjoyed it. 5 stars
2/17/09 Sevarian The "bobcat" is really a cougar or puma--but equally lovely 4 stars
2/16/09 Ry Poor Characters and plot. Disappointing. Watch Tombstone instead. 2 stars
1/19/09 gc great cast, authentic scenery, but the plot just didnt do it for me 3 stars
1/09/09 Anonymous. a good authentic western. 4 stars
1/08/09 Meep Definately worth a look for western fans, likely average for others 4 stars
11/19/08 Colleen H This is one of those movies that makes you appreciate the book. 3 stars
10/22/08 Dan I thought the movie was awesome. There was a very stoic realism admist its themes. 5 stars
10/08/08 damalc disappointing for such an amazing collection of actors 3 stars
10/06/08 BOB B WORTH A LOOK 4 stars
9/22/08 brad miller excellent film (notice I did not say western?) 5 stars
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  19-Sep-2008 (R)
  DVD: 06-Jan-2009


  DVD: 06-Jan-2009

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