Virgil Cole and Everett Hicks (Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen) law enforcers for hire, have been "pards'" for a long time now. They're two peas in a pod, and when they ride into the town of Appaloosa (in the New Mexico Territory, circa 1882) they already know what they're gonna say to the town-fathers about their marshaling problem. They've done it before.
The two form a unit in everything: conversationally, they finish each other's sentences, and where Cole is a pistol man with a fast draw, Hicks has an 8-gauge shotgun that can distribute a wide enough pattern to make a mob think twice....before it cuts them in two. Cole's contract with the town is simple: if he's going to enforce the law, he has to make the laws. As Hicks explains, "Whatever Mr. Cole states, it's law."
Ed Harris' sophomore directorial effort (after the particularly well-done bio-pic "Pollack") is a minor western, limited in population and scope. Based on Robert B. Parker's* novel of the same name, it still manages to do what it does very well, and provides a collection of very good actors (including Harris, Mortenson, Renée Zellweger, Jeremy Irons, Timothy Spall and Lance Henriksen) with complex roles that they clearly enjoy taking on. These people are infused with quirk, and character drives the story-line. Where Harris is brittle and short with words, Mortenson is laconic and lanky. Zellweger's Allie French happily screws up her face in a pinched manner that I haven't seen before--either mighty pleased with herself, or trying to keep the prairie dust off her face, I'm not sure which. Irons carries on the long tradition of English gentlemen-actors lovingly chewing western scenery.
After making a none-too-subtle point about a town that wants security giving away its freedoms, the film settles into the...what's that word?...resolution of the conflict between Irons' predatory land-baron, Bragg, and the homespun issues that occur with the arrival of Zellwegger's Allie French. Will a triangle develop? Who gets the girl? What happens to men of principle when the compromise of love enters the picture? A held prisoner in the jail reminds one of the Alamo consequences of "Rio Bravo," but it's not dwelled on for very long, and the story keeps advancing, despite the well-travelled terrain into unknown territory.
And I've always had a fondness for Western colloquialisms that arise from each new author tackling Westerns, and Parker and Harris and co-scenarist Robert Knott do not disappoint.
Little details stand out: Harris makes a point of showing the high forehead tan-line that's a permanent part of every hat-wearing citizen of Appaloosa (of course, that would be true, but it's too rarely seen in "perfect make-up" movie Westerns), and his gun-fights are brief, brutal affairs that are over in a flash of wills and smoke. "That happened quick!" muses Hicks after a long-odds gun battle is finished. "Everybody could shoot!" is Cole's tight-jawed reply.
And situations are repeatedly presented showing how much will is required "out there." Hesitancy could mean death. And the rules of the jungle claim jurisdiction even in a desert covered in clap-board. It's refreshing to see a Western that doesn't cloak itself as an epic. The aims of "Appaloosa" are small, but ring true.
"Appaloosa" is a Matinee.
* After John D. MacDonald, Parker is a favorite author when one is looking for pleasingly composed, enjoyably readable genre story-telling. His "Spenser" novels are his CTF, but his westerns, and his post-Chandler Phillip Marlowe stories are great fun to relax with.