With “Appaloosa,” it looks like Ed Harris was trying to re-create something of the old Westerns of his youth, leaving aside the dark realism of contemporary cowboy movies like “Unforgiven” and the gloriously potty-mouthed “Deadwood.” The colors are lighter, the dialogue is lighter (if not exactly clean) — heck, they've even got Chinese comic relief in this thing.

It hits every major Western plot point: very bad and powerful guy (Jeremy Irons) with ranch kills good guys, terrorizes town. Town hires strangers (Harris and Viggo Mortensen) to deal with bad guy. Strangers agree on the condition that they control the town, town reluctantly agrees. Then woman with a history shows up, finds good guy's soft spot (Renee Zellweger), and things get worse from there.

You might not mind the formulaic nature of the movie, though, if you're a lover of Westerns. I didn't mind too much, and the story does throw you a curve ball or two to keep things interesting. Those twists strain credulity, but they also manage to keep your attention.

But the real problem with “Appaloosa” is a lack of weight or urgency — the bad guys don't seem all that menacing, the chemistry between Harris and Zellweger plays more like a crush, and even the comedy occasionally seems forced and wooden.
Acting may be to blame for much of that weakness — Harris' performance is good enough but uneven: at times he almost appears to be playing a different person. Zellweger is charming and has the smell of good-girl sex about her, but she's not engaging and doesn't come off as the object of overwhelming desire that she's supposed to be. Irons is as capable as ever, and his American accent is as terrible as ever.

Mortensen all but carries this movie on his back, stealing every scene, balancing a light and constantly amused temperament with the gravi-tas of a cold killer. This is one of my favorite performances of his, one that captures that old Hollywood Western screen magic. Even better, he has the most enviable facial hair this side of Sam Elliot. Good boots, too.

On the whole, the movie's an amusing diversion, and if that's worth the ten bucks to you, then by all means, go. But understand that it's nei-ther “Unforgiven” nor a classic Western so much as a movie that looks very much like it's trying to be both and ends up self-conscious and sometimes a bit stilted. To be honest, a lot of the classics of the genre are, too — nobody ever believed Ricky Nelson was a cowboy, and John Wayne was only good at playing John Wayne, but if you don't like “Rio Bravo,” I'm not sure I want to talk to you.

I suspect that may be part of the joke here — Harris trying to capture not just the old stories but the old acting as well, but if so, even that feels less like the real thing and more like a report about the real thing.


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