Friday, October 3, 2008

Act 'em, cowboy! It's "Appaloosa"

At first, I wondered why Ed Harris, the actor who previously directed "Pollack," a movie about a famous artist whose life seemed to devoted equally to alcoholism and creativity, would want to make a Western. After the first scene of Harris' "Appaloosa," I thought I knew what had attracted the actor to this material. "Appaloosa" is an actors' movie, full of scenes that Harris' A-list cast plays with quiet relish. Hard as a dry bone, the dialogue allows a remarkably strong ensemble to savor every cowboy moment.

The movie, named for the town in which most of the story takes place and adapted from a Robert Parker novel, features many of the ingredients that define the Western genre -- gunfights and tough talk -- but it has its own idiosyncratic spirit and it tries for humor while simultaneously honoring Western tropes. That's a tough assignment, and if the movie doesn't always work, it does manage to amble its way toward semi-success. It can be fun.

Harris plays Virgil Cole, and Viggo Mortensen portrays his sidekick, Everett Hitch. The two travel the west, working as lawmen for anyone who agrees to pay their way. They're a compatible duo: Cole, who often fumbles for the right word, relies on Everett to help. Most often, he does. Everett proves a reliable and entirely trustworthy backup.

When the good townsfolk of Appaloosa hire Cole and Everett to protect them from lawlessness, the movie's wheels start turning. Cole and Everett square off against Randall Bratt, a brutal rancher played by Jeremy Irons. It's an old formula, but freshened by dialogue that Harris and his co-writer Robert Knott, skillfully appropriate from Parker's novel.

Harris, who allows a little humor to break through Cole's stoic facade, does fine work, as does Mortensen, who wears one of the largest cowboy hats I've seen in a while. And Irons seems to be having a fine time as the movie's most despicable character. Only Renee Zellweger seems to miss the point; she's miscast as Allison French, a woman who shows up looking like the local school marm, but who winds up being a whole lot more.

"Appaloosa" has a pleasing episodic lilt to it, and at times, and I enjoyed watching the movie's principal actors play cowboy. I figure they must have enjoyed the work, as well. Maybe that's why the pacing sometimes goes slack: I bet the cast didn't want to let go of characters who feel as if they've emerged fully drawn from the flat vistas of a lonely New Mexican landscape.

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