The tang of good old-fashioned Westerns only improves with time. Appaloosa, a story of two lawmen who clean up the title town at some personal cost, goes down like a single-malt aged for 25 years - since that last defiantly traditional big-screen Western, Fred Schepisi's Barbarosa (1982).
This one has the sweeping backdrop of New Mexico and the snap of a trampoline. Ed Harris, who directed and co-wrote it with Robert Knott from Robert B. Parker's novel, also stars as a lawman named Virgil Cole. A black-hatted good guy, he rides into Appaloosa, N.M., with his partner, Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen), and accepts the job as town marshal, once the elders accede to his absolute control of firearms and public conduct.
Their nemesis, a rogue cattle baron named Randall Bragg (an admirably restrained Jeremy Irons), claims to be a friend of President Chester A. Arthur's and runs his spread as a fiefdom. The audience knows and Cole suspects that Bragg is responsible for the death of the previous marshal, who in Cole's high praise was "a good man." But the movie doesn't lay the moralism on thick. Cole and Hitch put on tin stars because they enjoy their skills at maintaining law and order while keeping almost all their violence legal.
Hitch, who went to West Point, says he left the Army to expand his soul - and working next to Cole must be a spirit-swelling experience. Cole lives by a two-part professional code that's also a moral code: Do whatever job is necessary to regulate the peace, avoid bloodshed if possible and perform lethally, quickly and cleanly if it's not.
The movie relishes the surgical teamwork of Cole with his Colt and Hitch with his 8-gauge shotgun, without wallowing in the gunplay and the bloodshed. One of Bragg's men asks if they're afraid to lose their lives. The answer is (to quote Cole from the book), "You think we do this kind of work because we're scared to die?"
Cole and Hitch's most impressive victories against Bragg and his men are triumphs of their skill at taking and keeping hostages and tersely talking their enemies down, one at a time. They force each man in a mob to measure his loyalty against his love of life.
The movie brings back the danger and the humane humor of strong, silent men of action, like Gary Cooper in The Virginian and The Westerner and John Wayne in Ho ndo. Harris, as an actor and filmmaker, knows their secret: They didn't have to talk much because whatever they said had meaning. (They didn't drain themselves of sentiment for intimidating, homicidal effects, like many of Clint Eastwood's characters.)
Harris' Cole can laugh at himself, or at least smile and mildly chuckle. His attempt to acquire new vocabulary to say exactly what he means (he even reads Ralph Waldo Emerson!) becomes an unusually literate running gag. And the rare times he loses control, he can count on Mortensen's Hitch to restrain him. Mortensen and Harris boast the hair-trigger timing that comedy teams usually acquire after years of working in clubs or on TV.
It's wonderful to see Mortensen underact with panache after his scenery-chewing turn in Eastern Promises. Here both he and Harris do know their own strength, and, like their characters, use it wisely and without apology.
Appaloosa is about the strength and limitations of buddyhood and valor. It's stirring to see Cole and Hitch pull off one audacious feat after another. And Harris, as a director, leavens them with humor. After one particularly speedy shootout, Cole mutters, "Everybody could shoot." (Much of the dialogue, pungent and on the money, comes straight out of Parker's book, though Harris and Knott slightly improve the pacing and plotting.)
It's comical to see Allie French (Renee Zellweger), a woman who looks like a real lady, sashay into Appaloosa, judge Cole to be the town's alpha male and grill him about truthfulness in male-female relations. She shakes him up and sorely tries his judgment.
Zellweger has rarely been at her best in rural period pieces - she came off as Mammy Yokum in Cold Mountain - and it takes a while for Allie to come into focus. When she does, her presence adds to the volatility and puts the main subject in stark relief. Cole thinks Hitch will never be his match as a gunman because Hitch "has feelings." Appaloosa is about what happens when Cole realizes he has feelings, too.
The movie is an elegy to extreme friendship. Cole and Hitch test theirs every day in matters of life or death. But Appaloosa notes that a woman can find the weakness in the steadiest professional gunmen. Hitch retains his admiration for Cole even as he breaks up their team. Hitch sees that his friend's Achilles' heel might just be his heart.
(New Line Cinema) Starring Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Renee Zellweger, Jeremy Irons. Directed by Ed Harris. Rated R for some violence and language. Time 114 minutes.
online Watch a preview and see more photos from Appeloosa at baltimoresun.com/movies