Monday, October 20, 2008

Appaloosa (2008)

Finally got to see it last Friday! Amy and I met Ian, Jeri and Ric at the La Habra Regal.

There are some spoilers, mostly minor, throughout the review.


The story of Appaloosa is very similar to that of the excellent Warlock. Two mercenary "lawmen" are summoned to a town being terrorized by a local band of cowboys (led by a powerful and particularly ruthless rancher -- in Appaloosa's case, Randall Bragg played by Jeremy Irons). These lawmen are close friends and have worked together for many years, moving from town to town killing bad guys for money. They are called upon when the town's previous sheriff is murdered. They agree to clean up the town, but only if the town agrees to grant them any power they wish to do so.

Here the stories of Warlock and Appaloosa diverge. Warlock makes great use of the idea that fighting outlaws with mercenaries is a morally questionable solution, while Appaloosa features only one scene that ponders the question, even though the setup seems tailor-made for further conflict. Harris' character, Virgil, has been made uncomfortable and embarrassed by a conversation with his romantic interest (played by Renee Zellwegger), so he takes it out on some workers having a drink at the bar. Though drunk, they are doing no harm, and Harris' explosive temper and sense of impunity are first exhibited as he viciously pummels one of them before being restrained by Viggo's character (Everett). One of the town's officials questions this behavior, but beyond that it is never addressed again.

Other story similarities include a confrontation at the jailhouse (though the specifics of the scene were more reminscent of one in Rio Bravo), a love interest that may lead to the retirement of one of the characters and the dissolution of their partnership, a final shoot-out that ends the partnership and that the title of each movie is simply the name of the town in which the action takes place.

Beyond those the story plays out in a very different fashion. There is no character equivalent in Appaloosa to Richard Widmark's outlaw-turned-lawman, Everett doesn't have any of the shadiness that Anthony Quinn's "Doc Holiday" had, and there is no betrayal among the old friends. The romantic interest also plays out very differently in Appaloosa.

Overall, the story is good, but there did seem to be a few too many Acts. I didn't mind that much, because I enjoyed all the possibly extraneous scenes, but it did feel a little long, a little less tight, even though the movie ran just under two hours. And there was one bone-headed decision that you see coming from a mile away. If you're a smart guy who has been cleaning out towns of bad guys for years now, what's the dumbest thing you can do? Very publicly fall in love with a girl who now lives in the town. I said out loud "liability and leverage" as soon as I saw Virgil go after her.

Other good points: Harris demonstrates a talent for writing (and delivering) comfortable, funny, and natural sounding dialogue. (Jeri said the dialogue at the beginning was bad, but I don't remember.) The relationship between Everett and Virgil is great. They effectively demonstrate respect, loyalty and love in subtle believeable ways. Renee Zellwegger's character surprises you several times and turns out to be as interesting as the two leads. Irons' character doesn't have much substance to him other than "I'm a jerk," but he does have some good moments of interaction with the Virgil and Everett.

Harris, along with his DP, has a good eye for the scenery. Everything is shot on location, and it looks great. He also shoots within these locales well; I always knew where the characters were in relation to one another (which sounds simplistic, but I'm thinking of the scene on the river with the Indians where Everett rides up to meet them). I appreciated the unique camera work in the scene on the train where Allison is brought out from underneath the bridge.

Of course, I have to comment on the action and perpetrators there-of. This isn't 3:10 To Yuma (2007) or Tombstone, so the gunplay is pretty sparse. But when it happens, it's well-staged, and often unique in consequence. Virgil and Everett rescuing the kidnappers from the Indians, for example, plays out differently than you might expect. Allison has been kidnapped in order to secure Bragg's release, and Virgil and Everett have tracked them to a canyon. Before they can act, they notice a party of Indians about to raid them. They allow this until the Indians start to take Allison. Rather than shooting the Indians, Virgil and Everett shoot the pack-horse that Allison is on, and fire up into the air to scatter the raiding party. Later, Everett offers the group Bragg's horse to make up for the one they shot. Another unique scene is the shoot-out in the Mexican town. It's close-quarters and over in seconds. It also leads to one of the funniest lines in the movie.

Virgil and Everett lie on the ground, wounded but alive.

Everett: That was quick.
Virgil: Yeah, everybody could shoot.

The sound design is excellent, right up there with Open Range in terms of power and realism.

And the guns! Well, The Gun, anyway.

As you may have read, Everett carries a very unique item: an 8-gauge double-barreled shotgun. Until Appaloosa, I didn't even know 8 was a possible gauge. I'd heard of 10-gauges, and only seen one or two at all the gun auctions I've been to. For those unfamiliar with the gauge system, the smaller the number, the larger the bore. 12-gauge is the most popular. My double-barrel is 12. So the 8-gauge that Everett wields is HUGE, and is mentioned specifically about five times in the beginning of the movie. There are only one or two scenes where Everett is without it, too. He lugs that honkin' thing around everywhere he goes. And you only get to see him use it twice! The other guns are all pretty standard, though I noticed Everett's sidearm is a Colt Open Top, which is also unique.

I recommend Appaloosa to Western fans and fans of Viggo & Ed.


Ian said...

Did you mention the pair of 1 gauge cow balls that we saw, wowow wee!

Nobody said...

Finally: THE review I've been waiting for! Comprehensive, comparative, in short... authoritative!

I haven't seen it yet but the premise also reminded me of Warlock, especially since Viggo is wearing a Kilmer Doc Stache and Ed's character shares the name of one of the Earp brothers.

Chris said...

You probably have never heard of a 4 gauge shotgun either. These were from the black powder days when the loads weren't as powerful as they are
now with smokeless powders. They used
large bores to use large loads of shot. The first Colt cartridge revolvers were open tops like the cap
and ball revolvers.