The Western has been an endangered species, on and off, for something like 40 years now. Welcome to Appaloosa
, Ed Harris's film of the Robert B. Parker novel--first because it exists at all, but even more because Harris as star, director, and co-screenwriter (with Robert Knott) has managed to bring it to the screen with no hint of fuss or strain, as if the making of no-nonsense, copiously pleasurable Westerns were still something Hollywood did with regularity. Harris plays Virgil Cole, one of those ace gunfighter-lawmen whose name need only be mentioned to make a saloon go still. Cole and his shotgun-toting partner Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) accept a commission to enforce law and order in the New Mexico town of Appaloosa. That basically means protect it from rapacious rancher Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons, looking right at home on the range), who murdered the previous town marshal like swatting a fly. Life becomes complicated when, about the time Bragg has been jailed to await trial, a fancy-dressing piano player calling herself Mrs. French (Renée Zellweger) steps down off the train. Cole commences to have feelings, and as he ruefully reminds Hitch, "Feelin's can get ya killed."
In his second directorial effort (following the 2000 biopic Pollock), Harris takes his cue from novelist Parker's often deadpan-comic touch, allowing action and character to accumulate in accordance with an overall eccentric rhythm. (The film's main disappointment is that it would benefit from more running time to allow things to stew a bit longer, especially in the second half.) The character work is choice, from the moment Tom Bower, James Gammon, and Timothy Spall step into view as Appaloosa's civic leaders; the director's father Bob Harris contributes a cameo as a mellifluous-tongued circuit judge, and an age-thickened Lance Henriksen turns up midfilm as gunman Ring Shelton, trailing affability and menace. In collaboration with Dances With Wolves cameraman Dean Semler, Harris sets up shots and scenes in such a way that we often see into and out of Appaloosa's various buildings simultaneously, to excellent dramatic and atmospheric effect, and there's a thrillingly vertical dynamics to a scene involving a train at an isolated water stop. The action is lethal when it needs to be, but never dwelt upon. "That was over quick," Hitch observes after one gun battle. Cole's response says it all: "Everybody could shoot." --Richard T. Jameson