October 6, 2008

REVIEW: Appaloosa (B-)

Last year, for no apparent reason, we moviegoers saw a whole lot of horses and 10-gallon hats when Hollywood suddenly dusted off The Western, a genre virtually nonexistent since the early 90's. Clearly, the resurgence was a success - witness 3:10 to Yuma, There Will Be Blood, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and No Country for Old Men. Considering the last two listed were my #2 and #1 movies of 2007, and considering that 2007 was the Best Movie Year of the Last Decade, you might understand why I was looking forward so much to Appaloosa, the first (and maybe only?) Western of 2008.

And if you see it, you might also understand why I was disappointed to find it a tepid, vanilla-bland Western that offers little in the way of excitement and even less in the way of originality. Adapted from the novel of the same name by Robert Parker, Appaloosa is the pet project of Ed Harris (National Treasure 2), who produced, co-wrote, directed, starred, and even wrote and sang an original song for the soundtrack. It was an admirable effort, but I have to wonder if even Harris would admit something is still lacking, and if I had to zero on the problem I suspect I would land on the utterly conventional adaptation of the novel.

It's 1882 in New Mexico Territory. Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons, in a welcome return to the big screen) and his gang of exaggeratedly idiotic cowboys are running loose in the town of Appaloosa. Desperate to restore order, the mayor contracts reputable lawman Virgil Cole (Harris) and his deputy, Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortenson, Eastern Promises), reluctantly giving them complete jurisdiction according to their preferred methods (Cole: "It's the law."; Mayor: "Your law."; Cole: "Same thing."). Cole wears every stereotypical character trait on his sleeve; just by looking at him you know that is hoping to retire soon, that he'd like to settle down with an honest woman, that he sometimes questions the purpose of his job, and that he'll never back down in a fight. Doesn't that describe pretty much every sheriff in every movie?

Slowly, methodically, the story plods along as Cole and Bragg trade veiled threats and hard stares, time and time again. Rarely given an opportunity to inject any emotion into his characters, Viggo Mortenson is mostly relegated here to leaning against walls and drinking coffee, his long-barrelled rifle always resting on his shoulder. Renee Zellweger eventually shows up as the widow Ali French, a flirty redhead that tries to remain faithful to Cole in this testosterone-fueled environment. Like her Dorothy Boyd in Jerry Maguire, Zellweger is stuck in a relationship with a detached workaholic; the difference being that Zellweger could actually express her emotions in Jerry Maguire. Who knew Botox was available in 1882?

I'm going to tell you how Appaloosa ends by not telling you how it ends. If you've seen one spaghetti Western, you've seen Appaloosa, which seems to check off every marker of the genre - ride off into the sunset included - to the point that it could play like a spoof, if it were only a comedy. Many of the superficial elements and set pieces are still well done (cinematography, musical score, production design, costumes), but they can't make up for the nagging feeling you have that the story isn't really going anywhere. The central dilemma of the story just isn't engaging, and that makes the fate of the characters trivial.

There weren't many spices in the food in 1882, but this meal probably had more flavor than this movie...

I've been critical of Appaloosa mostly because I expected more, and when there's little that leaves an impression on you, the negative aspects end up being what you remember. Appaloosa really isn't a bad movie, but there's little evidence that it's a special one. Last year's 3:10 to Yuma was a somewhat similar story, but even though it was a remake, Yuma still featured a more vibrant appearance, more intriguing characters, and more suspenseful action. In a high noon duel between 3:10 to Yuma and Appaloosa, the latter wouldn't even get its six-shooter unholstered.

Writing - 8
Acting - 8
Production - 7
Emotional Impact - 8
Music - 5
Social Significance - 4

Total: 40/50= 80% = B-


  1. Sounds rather, I don't know, disappointing.

    I'm still going to brave it at some point this week, maybe tomorrow.

    Good review, Daniel.

  2. Probably a matter of expectations, Alexander. Like I said, not a bad movie, just not a very fresh one. I'd obviously like to see what insights you'd gain from it, as I expect you have a much better handle on this genre (and every other one, for that matter) than I do.

  3. Beav said: "p.s. Appaloosa = C (couldn't stand whatsherface) And whats with all these foreign actors playing Western roles??? (3:10 to Yuma) Reminds me of Planet B-boy."

    So it turns out everywhere I look people are going after Zellweger pretty hard. Obviously I criticize her here, too, but to be honest I'd much rather watch her again in this than something like Cold Mountain (people, do you remember she won an Oscar for that?!) or Chicago. At least here she's mostly on the sidelines.

    Good point about non-American actors. Actually that's a great point. Bale, Crowe, Irons!

  4. Yeah, I went after her as well Dan, but of course I especially loved her in CHICAGO. I am completely on the same page with you with APPALOOSA, and your rating is dead-on as well. You have been writing very well as of late--you are on a roll.

  5. Your aim is totally off this weekend Daniel. Appaloosa is freaking awful. It has a ridiculous voice over and the dialogue sounds like a 5 year old wrote it. Throw in character motivations that were muddled at best though typically non-existent and gun fights that were gallingly stupid I couldn't believe how truly terrible this film was.

  6. lol, Matt - I challenge you to a duel. Dawn outside Bar Abilene!

    Actually I'm souring even further on this movie the more and more I get away from it, and it was on the edge of a C+ anyway. It didn't offend me with awfulness, but there was just nothing to it.

    Cheers to you, Sam. I think the new review format gives me a little more room to think, even though I'm still trying to figure out what I'm doing!

  7. Don't forget Viggo, although born in the U.S., grew up in South America. But he, as usual, is great in this waste of 8 bucks. (actually 4 since it was part of a double deuce) Holla atcha boy Nick Cannon!

  8. Dang you. I knew something was fishy about Mortensen, looked him up and saw his NYC birthplace and just figured I was wrong.

    Whatever happened to the Tombstone cast!? Or all of those "Deadwood" cast members?

  9. Don't forget SUKIYAKI WESTERN DJANGO also came out this year...a film I actually liked better than this one.

    I would agree with your B- grade...I enjoyed the film but thought it could have been a lot better...and agree that 3:10 TO YUMA was a much better film.

  10. Ah, Matthew. Is that the spoofish samurai Western that I saw previews for last year, or am I thinking of something else? Looks like it from the IMDb page but I can't be sure.

  11. Yes it is indeed. It's Japanese but it's very much a western...and it has Quentin Tarantino!

  12. I figured there couldn't have been too many movies in the last year that fit that description.

  13. It is actually a Takashi Miike film. Hopefully it will open in the Cities sometime before the end of the year.

  14. Hmm, then I'm even more confused. The movie I was thinking of played at the Uptown sometime in the last year. Or at least I saw trailers and posters for it, so I just figured. I guess I could just look it up, but I'm kind of new to this "internet" thing.

  15. Well, in the end, I ended up liking it.

    Nevertheless, I understand where you're coming from, Daniel, and others, who were underwhelmed.

    Maybe the expectations, partly formed by this review and other people's comments, played a role in my acceptance of Harris' vision.

  16. I believe that you are thinking of "Tears of the Black Tiger," which I saw at Lagoon about a year ago (I believe).

    And also this movie sucked. I pretty much like Ed Harris in everything but this, so maybe he should stay in front of the camera exclusively.

  17. Expectations could have been the factor, Alexander. Sometimes low expectations lead to greater enjoyment more disproportionately than high expectations lead to greater disappointment. If that makes any sense at all...

    Yeah that's the movie, Matt. Never heard of it again.

    Didn't Harris direct Pollock? Not like that was an earth-shattering movie anyway, though.


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