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From Shane to Kill Bill:
Rethinking the Western
by Patrick McGee
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)
. "Appaloosa"

From the bountiful pen of Robert B. Parker, one of the most popular mystery authors whose humor-laced novels have created a virtual industry of best sellers, comes this western drama, adapted by Robert Knott and Ed Harris, who directed.

After some riding, fashionably dressed entrepreneur Virgil Cole (Harris) and his only employee Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) arrive at the small town of Appaloosa (the name having nothing to do with the leopard-spotted horse bred by the Nez Perce Indians of Idaho). Having been contacted for their services by the town elders, Cole introduces himself and his eight-gauge toting sidekick to the board and states his requirements for ridding the town of its troubling elements. Basically, it amounts to Cole and Hitch being designated marshall and deputy and answerable to no one. Their rules will be immediately posted around town.

Having no other recourse against lawless rancher Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), who has just shot the sheriff and two deputies, they assent to the terms, realizing the monetary cost and loss of their oversight to be worth the return of normality to their town by these fastidiously dressed lawmen.

Cole's and Hitch's "no-gun (except their own)" rule soon brings them face to face with Bragg's henchmen who refuse to comply with the edict and are quickly disposed of. Living fearlessly in self-guarded comfort, Cole is fortunate to be present in the hotel dining room when newcomer Allison French (Renee Zellweger), a corseted lady needing a meal, is refused service because of a waiter's bad graces. Cole soon has him eating humble pie and serving the lady, which leads the professional gunman into a rare romance and quick consummation.

Though Hitch is brought into the equation by Allison herself, acting as a nymphet, the boys' keep their eye on their quarry. When a young member of Bragg's gang comes in swearing he'll testify to his boss's gunning the sheriff down, they courageously pluck Bragg off his property and take him in as their prisoner. The case goes to the legal system and a judge holding court some weeks later results in a conviction. Before getting Bragg to his hanging, however, several switchbacks occur and the quick-draw duo find that they have more to be reckoned with than merely dealing with Bragg's men, dutifully surrounding the jail, intent on springing the boss by one means or another.

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As the western revolves so much around the two men and an enterprise that they approach in a manner that makes the premise unique, much of Parker's dialogue between them in the novel is preserved in the movie as, perhaps, the best source to convey character psychology--though it's Allison's character that's more intriguing. Bragg's isn't too far from the western standard, though he does it with his own flair.

Other roles carry out the essential qualities of a western, including a pair of gunmen who show up with credentials and belt notches more or less equal to Cole's. And, to show that dangers of the old west comprise more than these epochal types, a renegade band of indians show up for a little menace, as well. The moment leaves a solid imprint on the quality of the film and its source material.

Harris and Mortensen seem hewn for their parts as rugged, assured men who value their firearms and money in equal measure. Their relationship is one-of-a-kind and they provide the chemical constituents to make it work very nicely.

Humor and considerable irony arise out of these issues and types in a rather fine, literary fashion. Where the film lets you down is in the boundaries of the dramatic map which needs a more dynamic (and cinematic) driving force. The supreme confidence of two superior gunmen and a threatening villain wear off and the singularity that enamors us with "Appaloosa's" approach becomes more exactingly measured than emotionally fiery.

"Appaloosa" is no "3:10 to Yuma," though it certainly shares the getting-the-bad-guy-to-the-justice-of-a-noose part of the premise.

Mortensen, it can be argued, carries the most weight as he finds the powerful internalism of his character in one variation within his enormously deep bag of potential. His lalconic Everett Hitch is of a kind with his Nikolai of "Eastern Promises" and Tom Stall of "A History of Violence." Where this carefully selective guy will go next is interesting to contemplate and a constantly intriguing question.

Harris is strong enough to hold up his line of credits and Zellwegger turns out to be a good choice for this female who surprises us by her motivating force.

Cinematographer Dean Semler captures the mood and texture of the setting and the faces with all the quality the genre inspires. You only have to look at the picture accompanying this review (above and below) to see that! What weakness you may feel for a somewhat underwhelming ride should not include the visual contribution to it, which is entirely pro.

Finally, my fear is that there'll be no history made at the boxoffice for this well-cast "nice try" and that Parker will be influenced enough by anemic returns to turn the next production offer away. That'd be too bad for the movies.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen
Marshalls for hire, waiting for trouble.

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