After the genre largely disappeared from the silver screen, it was hard to believe that westerns could be revived. With superb showings by Warner and Lionsgate the past year with The Assassination of Jesse James and 3:10 to Yuma, the genre was revitalized with compelling and dramatic western tales. Perhaps riding high on the resurgence of the genre, Warner (by way of New Line Cinema) released yet another installment with Appaloosa, a film directed, produced, co-scripted and starring Ed Harris. Although the film only broke even at the box office domestically, it created plenty of nomination buzz for both Harris and co-star Viggo Mortensen.
Paired as rivals in A History of Violence, Ed Harris (who also directs, produces and co-scripts) and Viggo Mortensen stand together as friends and for-hire peacekeepers Cole and Hitch in a character-driven, bullet-hard Western based on Robert B. Parkers novel. As the woman who arrives in town with only a dollar and a keen sense of survival, Renée Zellweger adds feelings things that can get you killed to a quest to bring murderer Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) to justice. Blood will spill in the town called Appaloosa.
Honestly I’d forgotten about this film until word of its impending home video release caught up with me. The advertisements for it on TV were minimal and there wasn’t a whole lot to go on from what we did see. Still, with my renewed interest in the genre (largely due in part to the films mentioned in the first paragraph), I eagerly awaited this film if only because of my past (and pleasant) experience with westerns, as well as my enjoyment of the lead actors in this film. Needless to say I wasn’t disappointed, although those expecting a western as filled with shoot outs as 3:10 to Yuma will be quite let down.
You can count on one hand (and you won’t even need half of it) the number of shootouts in this film and that’s because it’s largely just a talking film. It’s fueled by the relationship between Harris and Mortinsen and has been dubbed a “western bromance” because of how close the two are. The appearance of Mrs. French (Zellweger) throws a bit of a wrench into their relationship, but through it all the two remain loyal and devoted to one another. But that’s just who the characters are—inherently trustworthy of one another and skeptical of most everyone else.
The bulk of the two hour film rests on the shoulders Jeremy Irons who plays the villain of the film, Randall Bragg. Irons does a superb job here, although considering the film is really dependent upon him to be the only villain of this film, it’s a bit of a letdown that we never really see him show off his villainy expect for the very beginning of the film. Disappointing, but, again, this isn’t your typical shoot ‘em up western.
On the flipside is the love triangle between Harris, Zellweger and Mortensen. This results in some of the finest acting I’ve seen from any of them, particularly during an early meeting between the three were Harris acts like a general fool around Zellweger, while Mortensen just looks on. The relationship between Zellweger and Harris is tenuous, and her later role as a bit of a “snake” in the film is a bit of a twist. Although a “lady” in every sense of the word, Zellweger plays the flip flopping Mrs. French to perfection, as she has you loving her one minute and hating her the next.
Of course the film isn’t perfect; it’s a really fantastic showcase of acting by all parties involved, but it really is just a very talkative soap opera set in the west. I’ll admit to feeling a bit bored at the pacing of the film at times, simply because when settling into it I had immediate thoughts of another bad-ass western what with all of the gun toting in the film (which is really all it amounts to most of the time—lots and lots of holding of guns). Still, it’s hard to fault the film as it is largely an entertaining outing, just with a few disparaging bits with its pacing.
I was also a bit surprised at the films “R” rating. Technically speaking aside from some very minor violence (of which I’ve seen much worse in PG-13 films) and the uttering of a couple F-bombs, the film really wasn’t all that adult. Sure the situations and some of the dialogue between Zellweger and Harris got a bit tetchy and wouldn’t be something the PG-13 audience would necessarily be interested in hearing, but overall I fail to really see how this warranted an R-rating…unless they just wanted to market it as such.
Overall Appaloosa comes Recommended but only if you can find enjoyment from a drama-focused western. The chemistry between Harris and Mortensen is absolutely fantastic, especially during the sequences where Harris begins to utter a word, stops as he cannot complete it, and asks Mortensen to finish it for him. It’s really a great little bit of characterization between the two and if anything the film is worth checking out for the two of them alone. But if you don’t enjoy westerns then you needn’t give this one a second glance.
Appaloosa arrives in a two-disc Blu-ray case (second disc is a digital copy) with an insert containing the redemption code for the digital copy. A cardboard o-sleeve rests on top of the case and repeats the jacket art below it. As with most Warner titles, the film auto-starts and the only menu for the film is a full-screen offering to check out the various extras on the disc.
The VC-1 encoded 2.40:1 1080p transfer looks solid for the most part, although I noticed some softness on the image in extreme close ups. The lines on Harris’s face didn’t always look as distinct from one frame to the next and at times the characters tended to be a bit on the waxy side. It’s nothing that really looked terrible, but aside from a few exterior shots there wasn’t a lot in this film that showed off what the Blu-ray format is known for. It’s a shame as I had hoped for nice sun rises or brilliant composition shots, but the cinematography in this film really wasn’t as stand-out as I’d hoped. Though the guns and costumes were certainly nice looking and the detail presented on them really looked great at times. Overall though it’s a bit of a blah transfer and the softness at times is rather distracting.
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix is a bit more impressive, but with the film being mostly dialogue driven it’s all focused in the front channels. The surrounds get a workout occasionally, but for the most part the audio transfer for this film is nothing to write home about. The gunshots fired in the shootout make for a nice ricochet echo in the room, but, as I said before, it’s mostly dialogue driven so there isn’t much to hear in the surrounds, although the saloon segments are nice and full.
Moving onto the extras, there’s actually nice dose of goodies to check out, which is a first for Warner in a long time. First up is a Commentary by Ed Harris and Screenwriter-Producer Robert Knott that is informative and worth a listen if you enjoyed the film. Harris’s performance of four different roles for the film’s production is invaluable here as he covers the full gamut of discussion. Next up is a series of four featurettes, Bringing the Characters of Appaloosa to Life (7:34, SD), Historic Accuracy of Appaloosa (10:22, SD), The Town of Appaloosa (5:08, SD), and Dean Semler’s Return to the Western (5:18, SD). Each of the featurettes features cast and crew interviews and give a brief overview of their specific topics. Finally we have a selection of Deleted Scenes (12:03, 1080p) with optional commentary by Ed Harris/Robert Knott.
Overall a solid release for a solid film. Once again, I stress the point of dramatic western since that’s really all this film is. Two hours of talking interspersed with some violence and salty dialogue. But the entire ride is entertaining, in large part due to Harris and Mortensen’s performances. Recommended.
Appaloosa is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.