Appaloosa, co-written and directed by actor Ed Harris (The Human Stain), is surprisingly accessible and involving, though it will probably escape attention. Still, it’s worth seeing on DVD or at a matinee. Built on good performances, flirting with anti-heroism and emerging as an underdeveloped exercise in counterfeit romanticism, this Western has conflict, action and humor, which is better than nothing in the wake of bad news and bad movies.
Sureshot U.S. Marshal Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and his equally able deputy, eight-gauge shotgunner Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen), ride into the titular town ready to offer a no-holds contract to bring a lawless rancher (Jeremy Irons) to justice. Yes, the man who makes money is once again besmirched, and Mr. Irons does his best with an overdone (and totally stupid) stereotype.
Along comes a widow (Renee Zellweger), disembarking from the train with a pair of slender, swaying hips that catch the attention of both Virgil and his sidekick. Civilized Virgil enjoys treating her like a lady, which she seems to appreciate, while strong, silent Everett just wants to rip her clothes off. The contrast becomes an issue when a showdown with the bad guys kicks the town’s dust up.
Turns out the marshal’s not the brightest lawman in the West—he strains for a vocabulary—and the widow is something a hussy. Yet, what happens after those disclosures is not necessarily predictable and, recalling Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the deputy, despite the advice of a wise prostitute (is there any other kind?), more or less goes along with the flawed pair as far as it takes him.
Things become complicated with the arrival of a couple of competing hired guns and, eventually, shots are fired. Amid train raids, Indian attacks, and damsels in distress, allegiances and plot perspectives shift. By the time the relatively brisk movements settle down, Appaloosa, town and movie, is what it is, one man stands alone against the whole damn place, pumping lead exactly, and memorably, where it belongs.
Not that the resolution is entirely convincing—or profound, which it isn’t—but Harris, Mortensen, Irons, even pouty Zellweger, conjure a morally agnostic town that manages to get approximately what it deserves.