Ed Harris works with calm assurance from Robert Parker's novel to make a fine fusty Western after his assuming pastiche in the well-acted biopic Pollock.
Here, in Appaloosa, which stars himself, Viggo Mortensen, Renee Zellweger and Jeremy Irons, the genre has much feeling for gunfighters and unrepentant ranchers. A code of honor within the darker undercurrents of law and order calls to mind better pictures like El Dorado and Rio Bravo, headlined by John Wayne.
James Mangold's remake of 3:10 to Yuma was a success last year, nicely integrating camraderie with rousing shoot-em-up action sequences that led to a shapely tale filled with moral ambiguity. Harris allows his picture to unfold more conventionally as tenuous relationships gradually develop when situations get more drastic.
The actor/director casts himself as Virgil Cole, retained as the new Marshall when the titular sheriff is gunned down by venal rancher Randall Bragg (Irons, sporting an interesting accent). Mortensen is Cole's dutiful deputy Everett Hitch who's been watching the laconic man's back for years. Their job is to settle down wild frontier bouroughs when others weren't able or couldn't do so.
Thinking they'll be in town long enough to enact a provisional law and justice for Bragg and his minions, Zellweger's young widow in Allison French offers a nervy curveball for Cole. She likes his virile, inner reserve and they become a couple.
After all looks good for the denizens as Cole and Allison create a new home for themselves, an eyewitness against the bilious Bragg heightens the tension in the dilemma to comply with official authority. The relaxed nature of Appaloosa turns more unsettled as obsession of a personal nature takes over when Bragg gets the upper hand after sentenced to hang for his crime.
The appeal here is heavier for the adult crowd, in its somewhat maladroit line readings and thoughtful pauses, lacking the richer conviction of something like Unforgiven. Especially near the end, there is a strong sense of integrity and conscience that ingratiates itself as much as Cole after more trouble occurs after riding into Indian territory.
With its eye-opening instances of violence, Harris and Mortensen reaffirm the importance of screen chemistry that is evident between Cole and Hitch, who looks very much at home on the porch of a saloon. Zellweger, like Leatherheads, is much less convincing with her male co-stars, though more of a narrative pawn as she is more recognized of late for her squinting. Irons seems right for the heavy in this sharply mounted Western with a nice climactic shoot-out.