Based on the acclaimed novel by Robert B. Parker, Appaloosa possesses all the necessary ingredients for an entertaining, old-fashionedWestern, including a solid cast (Oscar nominees Viggo Mortensen, Ed Harris, and JeremyIrons), a breathtaking setting (New Mexico, circa 1882, in the fictional mining town of Appaloosa), and a classic premise (two lawmen are hired to wrest control of a frontier town from a ruthless rancher). But all that promise is nearly frittered away by the emergence of an exceedingly unwelcome distraction.
Irons stars as the villainous Randall Bragg, a powerful New England transplant who's used his Washington, DC, connections to carve out a large swath of the Southwest -- and the lucrative ranching and mining rights that come along with it -- for himself. In addition to being Appaloosa's wealthiestresident, he's also its de facto ruler, aided by a ragtag crew of violent henchmen. But when he brazenly guns down the town marshal in front of dozens of witnesses, showing little fear of punishment or retribution, the beleaguered townsfolk decide they've had enough.
Desperate to bring some order to their increasinglylawless town, a small group of Appaloosa's leading citizens turn to guns-for-hire Virgil Cole (Harris, who also directed the film) and Everett Hitch (Mortensen), who swiftly assume the vacant jobs of city marshal and deputy, respectively. Principled, plain-spoken Cole and his laconic wingman Hitch waste no time going after Bragg's band of outlaws, much to the chagrin of Bragg himself, who vows to ensure that the new lawmen meet the same grisly fate as their predecessors. And thus, the stage is set for an epic confrontation between hero and villain.
Then Renee Zellweger rides into town and throws agiant monkey wrench into Appaloosa's promising mix.
It's difficult to ascertain just what Zellweger is doing in the film. I suspect that her character, Allison French, is meant to serve as a sort of Western femme fatale: charming and seductive, with dubious loyalties. First she beguiles Cole, then makes a pass on Hitch, and then flirtswith Bragg's henchmen. Ultimately, it's Cole who falls the hardest for her, and he risks everything for her -- even after he learns of her various machinations.
This might have been compelling -- if the part wereplayed by someone other than Zellweger. Quite the opposite of sultry, she radiates an annoying homeliness, delivering her lines with a perpetually scrunchy face and a contrived "aww shucks" cadence. Either she's appallingly miscast, poorly photographed (a longshot since cinematographer Dean Semler made everything else look great), or her character wasn't sufficiently thoughtthrough; whatever the case, she serves as more of an unwelcome distraction than anything else.
It may seem inappropriate to harp on Zellwegger's physical appearance, but the plot of Appaloosa hingeslargely on her character's alleged appeal. We're supposed to believe that she's the kind of woman for whom Cole is willing to risk his life -- as well as his partner Hitch's -- despite her many obvious shortcomings.
When the epic confrontation between the hero and thevillain finally arrives, it's rendered hollow by the suspicion that Cole is being played like a chump by a woman who, frankly, isn't worth it. The only person in Appaloosa who seems to get the joke is Mortensen, who shines above his peers in another excellent performance. He's just good enough, in fact, to keep Zellweger from sinking the film entirely.
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