Like any aficionado of the Western, or of any other genre for that matter, I’m picky. The nonaficionado, if he ventured to attend at all, might have been quicker to accept last year’s remake of 3:10 to Yuma or last year’s revision of the James Gang saga, The Assassination of Jesse James [pause for breath] by the Coward Robert Ford. Horses, six-shooters, cowboy hats, a Western. All the same, neither of those swollen ticks necessitated a change in the particulars of my hardened position that the last decent Western was Open Range in 2003 and the last top-notch ones were Unforgiven and Tombstone in ’92 and ’93. The “decent” half of that pronouncement must now be updated to make way for Appaloosa.
Adapted from a novel by the hard-boiled mystery writer Robert B. Parker (and no relation to the ’66 Marlon Brando Western, The Appaloosa, whose title alludes to a horse and not to a town in New Mexico), it bears more than a passing resemblance to a pseudonymous variation on the Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday legend, the 1959 Warlock, without itself qualifying as a variation on that legend. I happened to write about Warlock this past spring in conjunction with Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (Earp and Holliday by name), two recent acquisitions to my DVD collection, so it remains fairly fresh in my mind. We have again in Appaloosa the two-man team in a peri patetic “peacekeeping business” (Have Gun — Will Travel), the living legend and the overshadowed sidekick. We have also the outsized outlaw gang who hold the titular town in their grip. We have, in conciser form, an identical opening, the elimination of the incumbent peace officer and the appearance of his replacements on a hilltop overlook. We have forthwith the Earpian edict of no guns within city limits. We have the woman who comes between the two peacekeepers. And we even have a recognizable replay, on a reduced scale, and nowhere near movie’s end, of the showdown at the O.K. Corral.
But there’s a lot that we don’t have. We don’t, for starters, have any clear distinction, and thus any palpable tension, between the peacekeeping partners. (There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but their complete compatibility disqualifies the movie as a variation on Earp-Holliday.) Both are cookie-cutter Strong Silent Types, and well played in that mode by the leathery Ed Harris, who also directed, and a Buffalo Bill-whiskered Viggo Mortensen, weighed down with a bazooka-sized eight-gauge shotgun. The two communicate laconically and often drolly — “They good?” inquires Mortensen about a couple of newly arrived gunhands; “They’re excellent,” comes the reply — and Harris sometimes requests vocabulary help with big words like “sequestered.” It’s true, too, that Harris proves to be more giddily susceptible to the wiles of a piano-playing widow (Renée Zellweger), taking her flirtatious teasing too much to heart (“I was just funnin’ you,” she explains; “I didn’t enjoy it,” he sulks, then vents his frustrations by beating up a harmless bystander), soon contemplating settling down, deciding between curtain patterns, and learning hard lessons firsthand about feminine fickleness and two-facedness. Yet when it comes down to a point of contention between his new female partner and his old male partner, his feet are still planted solidly on the ground. “You believe him over me,” his fiancée huffs. “That’s correct,” he affirms.
The relationship between the two men in Warlock is far more complicated and shaded, and the woman who comes between them is actually two women, and all around there are more characters, along with more development of them, and more texture and nuance and psychology and sociology. (Nice detail, for instance, that the mercenary lawmen must moonlight as casino operators inasmuch as their salaries will barely cover their practice ammo.) But then, Warlock is a top-notch Western. Appaloosa is only a very decent one. I often marvel at how much more an old Hollywood movie can accomplish in the same duration as a new Hollywood movie. Where does the time go?
Certainly, Appaloosa doesn’t dawdle. It sets up the situation in a twinkling; it gets right into the action; it never waits long in between action sequences; and yet these are never overblown, slowed-down, dragged-out. Moreover, the alacrity with which the wily woman ensnares the susceptible lawman, to say nothing of the alacrity with which she betrays him, is quite dizzying, even quite bewildering. (Did we miss something?) Even so, the movie doesn’t seem to get much done, doesn’t seem to cover much ground. Smaller quibbles could be raised in addition: the now standard dusty, dull, brownish image that Tombstone, almost alone among latter-day Westerns, had the good sense to brighten up; the modern cliché, perhaps rooted in the War of Independence, of the British bad guy (Open Range had one too, Michael Gambon, but this one is Jeremy Irons, who had performed the service in Die Hard with a Vengeance as well); and the spelling of the sign over the office of the “City Marshall,” although I suppose that word was as tricky in olden days as it is today. For all that, the movie can rest comfortably on the tight-jawed interplay of its male leads, and on its abundant action sequences, most especially the O.K. Corral parallel (much like those newly arrived gunhands who take part in it, this one’s not just good, but excellent: “Everybody could shoot”), and finally, lingeringly, the movie can rest on the climactic act of friendship of the sidekick for his smitten partner. That can’t be divulged here, beyond saying it has some real nobility to it, and some subtlety, some irony.
My dutiful and pleasurable return visit to Burn after Reading produced no major new insights but maybe one oversight. I wish I had made more of the performance of David Rasche as the CIA middle manager whose job it is, besides dropping the axe on John Malkovich, to report to the big boss, J.K. Simmons. Their two scenes together are for me the highlights of the film, Simmons getting the laughs with his can’t-be-bothered brusqueness, and Rasche, an exemplary second banana, setting him up with a cringing, mincing timorousness of approach, as if braced for a blowup, but swiftly shifting gears, when no blowup is forthcoming, into casual tones of we’re-on-the-same-page, I’m-on-top-of-it, I’m-way-ahead-of-you. (Sure, sure, burn the body, of course, of course.) He gets everything out of his lines that the Coen brothers put into them. And then some.