It ain’t easy being a lawman in a Western mining town like Appaloosa, home to a slimy rancher named Bragg (Irons). For starters, Bragg just shot three deputies who tried to arrest him, and his lackeys have a tendency to test your quick-draw skills after a few whiskeys. And of course, the inevitable pretty lady (Zellweger) will attempt to domesticate you, asking you to pick out curtain patterns and such. Luckily, sheriff Virgil Cole (Harris) and his longtime partner, Everett (Mortensen), are watching each other’s backs and supplying plenty of flinty masculine banter. The Wild West should be tamed in no time.
Ed Harris’s oater doesn’t try to reinvent the wagon wheel so much as build a sturdy carriage from old parts. Despite nods toward dispelling the genre’s mythology—gunshots are muted pops instead of reverbed Howitzer ka-pows—the actor, director and cowriter opts to work intimately within a meat-and-potatoes formula. The model isn’t Ford’s mournful epics or Mann’s psychological potboilers, but the sagebrush case studies of Delmer Daves, who treated the open range less as a character than as a backdrop for character development.
But apart from the pleasure of hearing Harris and Mortensen trade old-married-couple quips (like so many Westerns, it’s really a love story between two men), there’s little to distinguish Appaloosa from its legion of ancestors. Only a brief showdown in a Mexican square suggests that Harris can use space to create tension, and the dragging pace has sucked the air out by the time the climax rolls around. These are horse-opera fundamentals; having given them short shrift, the film just shuffles down its lonesome trail into the horizon and out of your memory.