Ed Harris Packs A Mean Squint In Solid Throwback "Appaloosa"

Source: Arizona Daily Star

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© New Line Cinema/Warner Brothers.
 
Ed Harris sure has watched his share of John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and James Stewart Westerns.

The star and director of throwback Western Appaloosa, Harris plays Virgil Cole, a decisive lawman with rawhide skin and a trigger finger that's matched in speed and accuracy only by his mouth.

With Wayne's gruff arrogance, Eastwood's squinting revenge eyes and Stewart's ambling cool, Harris carves a daunting figure.

Alongside longtime deputy Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen), Virgil saunters into the New Mexico territory town of Appaloosa, which cowers in fear of rancher Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) and his gang of varmints.

Virgil speaks with confidence partly because he knows he's the fastest gun, partly because Everett is always flanking onlookers with an 8-gauge shotgun. Virgil roams around half-cocked, ready to call criminals out on their indiscretions and treat them to a swift trial with a jury of their peers. Peers being bullets.

Without blinking, Virgil and Everett bust up Randall's operation, shooting some offenders on the spot and intimidating all of the others. They catch Randall at just the right time and vow to bring him to justice for killing the area's previous lawman.

The only force capable of softening Virgil's brutal demeanor is love, or some loose facsimile thereof. Which arrives in the form of Allison French (Renee Zellweger), a widow who takes an immediate liking to Virgil. Suddenly the old bulldog is building a love nest and picking out curtain patterns as Everett grimaces but holds his stiff lip. Now Virgil has something to lose.

Appaloosa is practically a survey course in Western cliches, but the film wears its old, worn duds proudly. It's just a pleasure to watch Harris and Mortensen operate together. Soul mates, their characters speak and move in a balletic unison. They can do everything together except talk about feelings. Which causes problems when Allison starts making eyes at Randall. And others.

Zellweger, who has been off her game for half a decade now after a hot streak of Oscar attention, is back in fine form. Her tender spunkiness and elegant clothing contrast with her coarse, dusty surroundings.

Nary a bump in the plot's path comes as a surprise, but that's OK because it's been quite a while since a movie like this came along. Even last year's flurry of neo-Westerns excelled at breaking tradition rather than adhering to it.

Despite the predictability of Appaloosa, it's easy to slip toward the edge of your seat as familiar pieces fall into place. The chess game develops between the friends, the villain and the damsel.

Then, of course, there's the sunset, just waiting for lonely cowboys to ride off into it.

*** (out of 4)
Last edited: 13 January 2009 15:07:49
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