A gruff, gun-toting lawman, a dependable, wise-cracking sidekick, a bustier-sporting temptress, a sinister villain, a bloody third-act showdown — indeed, it appears that Ed Harris’ “Appaloosa” has all the elements of a solid (if unimaginative) Western.
The problem? None of these things matter if you’re not awake to appreciate them.
Alas, such is the case with “Appaloosa,” a Western front-loaded with A-list talent (where else can you find Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen AND Jeremy Irons in one reel?) that suffers from poor editing and even worse pacing. There’s gunfights aplenty, for sure, but they’re buried underneath piles and piles (and piles) of dialogue that’s a little too “witty” (many lines, taken straight from Robert B. Parker’s book, don’t survive the book-to-film translation) and characters that seem a little too flat to create any sort of emotional impact.
The storyline, which remains fairly faithful to Parker’s book, unfolds as many typical Westerns do: Tightlipped patrol-man-of-sorts Virgil Cole (Harris) and his more articulate partner Everett Hitch (Mortensen) travel the West working as “justice slingers,” offering to clear out any riff-raff in exchange for money. The pair stumbles upon Appaloosa, a town held firmly in the fearful grasp of Randall Bragg (Irons), a trigger-happy rancher with no livestock but a nefarious posse of outlaws. The entrance of Allison French (a horribly, dreadfully miscast Renee Zellwegger), an impeccably wardrobed organist with flexible morals and unusually hued hair, complicates Cole and Hitch’s plan to kill Bragg and restore order to Appaloosa and its beleaguered residents.
Here is a plot that’s rife with possibilities. (Consider: “Unforgiven” did much more with much less.) Yet somehow Harris — who, perhaps, should stick to acting, not directing — never manages to make these elements flow or achieve any sort of balance. For starters, the choppy editing makes for jarring, staccato, unpleasant transitions that make “Appaloosa” seem like a series of scenes strung together, not a finished movie. Then there’s the pacing. It’s slow, so slow at times that it’s almost like the film nearly flatlines … only to be paddle-shocked back to life with a gunfight or a beating or some nudity. Editing and pacing may be small parts of a movie, but here they’re bad enough to affect the quality of the movie.
Lucky for viewers, a few performances do keep “Appaloosa” from sinking too far. Harris can glower and squint and mutter with the best of them, and he delivers too-self-consciously-pithy one-liners with aplomb. (It’s fair to say, though, he’s got nothing on Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff Ed Tom Bell.) But he shrinks too small, retreats too far inward; we learn too little about Cole to understand his choices, root for him, or care much about him at all. Mortensen, who steals scenes from Harris at every turn, registers rather impressively as Hitch, a would-be philosopher who happens to wield a mean eight-gauge shotgun. He quietly supports Cole, defending his choices and spurning the unwanted advances of Allison — a woman who, as poorly played by Zellwegger, is equal parts simpering wet rag and raging nymphomaniac. (Did I mention that Zellwegger is terrible? It bears repeating.) Irons clocks in at a close second to Mortensen with his wily, slick turn as Bragg, who outwits Cole but can’t teach his men to outshoot him.
Yet great performances cannot a movie save. How so? One word: editing. Anyone who needs a class in it should look to “Appaloosa” as a “don’t do this” example.