The Marshall of a small town in the west rides up to Randall Bragg's (Jeremy Irons) expansive ranch. Bragg's ragtag crew of rough men flanks him as they confront the Marshall and his two sidekicks. Soon, the Marshall is dead and Bragg's men continue to take over the town with little regard for anyone's safety, health or welfare. The town elders (Timothy Spall, Tom Bower and James Gammon) urgently meet with Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen), two guns for hire who provide Marshall services to towns in need. For a price. The town elders initially balk at the terms, but then agree, allowing Cole and Hitch to set up shop. They soon make their presence known to some of Bragg's men and the rancher comes into town to deal with the situation himself. Bragg realizes they are a force to reckon with and backs off. Temporarily. Allison French (Renee Zellweger), a widow, arrives on one of the infrequent trains and quickly makes the acquaintance of Cole and Hitch. Cole is immediately smitten and offers to get her a job playing piano in the hotel and assures her there is a room available. He has the connections to make that happen. Soon, they start courting and making plans for the future. Cole and Hitch quickly determine Bragg is in fact guilty of murder and set about bringing him in. But Bragg's men are almost as persistent as their boss and Bragg proves to be a little more slippery than Cole and Hitch initially planned.
"Appaloosa" is an authentic looking Western. Harris and his team obviously spent a lot of time trying to make everything look right. But the film is a pretty straightforward telling of a basic horse opera. In recent years, Clint Eastwood, James Mangold and Kevin Costner have all made westerns that, along with HBO's "Deadwood", incorporate the tell tale hallmarks of this genre into stories that actually deal with some of the relevant issues so often ignored in films of this genre. Racism, sexism, greed and environmental issues have all made appearances in these stories, giving them a greater relevance, more interest in our modern era and they have made more of an impression.
So Harris wants to make an old-fashioned western? To make this work, that same western has to be an edge of your seat type of experience. The action has to be nail biting, leaving you always guessing, leaving you exhausted. There have to be some intense gunfights, leaving a lot of dead bodies. There has to be some carnage.
"Appaloosa" has some interesting, well-plotted action. But it lasts all of about fifteen minutes. Total. And when the film runs almost two hours, this leaves a lot of time for talking, character development and plot.
Generally, I am all for this. The more plot, character development and dialogue the better. If it's done well. But in "Appaloosa", the results are wildly uneven.
The relationship between Cole and Hitch is unique and interesting. They have worked together for a long time and have reached the point where Hitch even completes Cole's sentences and helps him out when his buddy is searching for the meaning of a word. They are basically so comfortable together, they could be married. In fact, at times, it almost seems like Hitch is more jealous of Cole's relationship with Ms. French. Is it jealousy or a feeling he has about her?
The relationship between Cole and Hitch is the one saving grace of the film. In fact, if Harris were to make a sequel chronicling the relationship of these two characters, I would buy a ticket even though I pretty much hated this film. In "Appaloosa", there are too many distractions from this more interesting relationship. All of these distractions are just wrong or flat out bad and the film suffers as a result.
The biggest and most problematic aspect of this film? Renee Zellweger. This is easily, by far, topping the list, the worst performance of her career. As soon as she arrives in town, stepping off the train, I expected her to be Harris' long-time girlfriend, arrived to provide him with some companionship. This would naturally be revealed after a few minutes of playful flirting in which they pretended to be strangers. The very fact that I expected this obvious cliché from this film should tell you how much hope I held after watching just a few minutes of the story. When it turns out she is a stranger to Cole, I was surprised but went along for the ride. But their relationship moves too fast. Way too fast. For the Old West. It seems like they are talking about the house they just bought together after only a day or two. Would this have ever happened in the Old West? No, probably not. But Cole is clearly in love with her, and she is clearly in love with him. Or is she? After Cole tells Hitch about their plans to finish building a house on the edge of town they have just bought from someone who ran off, Cole asks him to go down and visit Allison at the building site. She wants his opinion on her decorating plans. No, I'm not kidding. When he arrives, she immediately locks her lips on his and he breaks the embrace to leave. When this happened, people in the audience actually laughed. This isn't a good sign either. People shouldn't laugh during what is supposed to be a dramatic moment. If they do, they clearly aren't feeling the moment. And this shows the actor and the director isn't doing their job right.
Throughout the film, Zellweger's character ping-pongs back and forth between different men, causing them to discuss her feelings, motivations, her psychology. Again, laughable. God forbid anyone should actually talk to Allison about these things, but Cole and Hitch spend a lot of time discussing her, as though they are getting ready to give some notes to Freud.
Jeremy Irons' initially starts off as a promising villain. When the Marshall confronts Bragg, Bragg quickly kills the lawman, unwilling and unable to tolerate his nuisance. But his character also makes some unbelievable changes throughout the story, completely robbing him of any power, any menace. At one point, Cole and Hitch take Bragg captive after he leaves the outhouse on his property. This seems like a particularly cowardly way to take the villain in, giving Hitch and Cole and easy way out and also makes Bragg seem particularly cowardly. Later, as the lawmen chase Bragg, his character changes until he becomes laughable.
The action scenes in "Appaloosa" are good, but brief. And you have to wade through many minutes of poorly written exposition, keeping us away from the most interesting aspect of the film; the relationship between Cole and Hitch.