Western fans will not want to miss Appaloosa, the new film produced, directed, and co-written by Ed Harris. Harris has made himself a reputation as a mark of quality, not only as an actor in scores of films (even in high-paying trash like National Treasure 2, he's invariably the best part), but as a director (the 2000 film Pollack). Like Pollack, Appaloosa has the best of both worlds, with Harris both in front of and behind the camera.
Harris stars as Marshal Virgil Cole, who along with Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen), travels around and cleans up lawless towns. As in Robert B. Parker’s novel, the story takes place in 1882, in the fictional Southwestern town of Appaloosa. Cole's latest gig begins a war of wills with a murderous power broker named Randall Bragg, played with smooth self-righteousness by Jeremy Irons. Hired by town aldermen (including the always-welcome, always-shifty Timothy Spall), Cole and Hitch become the new city marshal and his deputy, and the first order of business is bringing Bragg to justice for the murder of Cole's predecessor. Tension also arises when pretty widow Allison French (Renée Zellweger) shows up in town and promptly gets between Cole and Hitch, threatening the good thing they've had going for over twelve years. And matters get yet more complicated with the arrival of ambiguously motivated gunslingers Ring Shelton and his brother Mackie (Lance Henriksen and Adam Nelson).
Harris has already proven he’s as canny a director as he is an actor, and Appaloosa is no exception, tastefully showcasing moments between actors while playing out a tale that’s not unlike Rio Bravo wrapped in a modern realism. The deceptively simple pleasure of clearly defined characters is not to be underestimated. "Feelings get you killed," Cole explains, and proves it by swiftly screwing up his advantage with Allison when he lets his pride get the best of him. The thought of settling down (and finishing a house with no walls) holds a growing appeal for a man looking to expand his soul in ways military life and tangling with Apaches could not. But a relationship with Allison won't have the ease of Cole's sly, masculine banter--his shared, dry sense of humor--with Hitch (akin to Casablanca's "beautiful friendship"), which seems doomed to vanish in the equation.
All of the characters have intriguing shades and provocative points of view. Cole's laying down of the law invites inquiry into the politics of law itself; even President Chester A. Arthur, one character notes, has been known to exploit it. As weaselly as he is, Bragg has a timely point when he insists, "It is not justice in this new nation of ours to deprive me of my liberty," but a trial should settle the question. Completing the picture conjured by the characters and themes is terrific Western photography by Dean Semler (Dances with Wolves): depth-of-field shots through architectural frames evoke The Searchers, and the images of impassive faces shadowed by wide-brimmed hats encapsulate the film's close-to-the-vest personalities.
In comparing the Blu-ray and DVD releases of Appaloosa, there's no contest. By cramming a widescreen and 4:3 transfer on a single disc, the DVD crushes image detail, while the Blu-ray delivers a nicely detailed picture that's a clean, accurate, tight representation of the theatrical look of the film.
Both releases include a commentary by Ed Harris and screenwriter-producer Robert Knott. Listening to the low-key Harris talk straight about the production is almost like setting a spell on the porch with his character, and Knott also pitches in some interesting points about the film and its development.
"Bringing the Characters of Appaloosa to Life" (7:34, SD) is a fairly typical making-of featurette, with Harris, Knott, Viggo Mortensen, Renée Zellweger, Jeremy Irons, director of photography Dean Semler, and Lance Henriksen interviewed.
"Historic Accuracy of Appaloosa" (10:22, SD) has a title that says it all; it's an interesting look at what went into the period details. Harris, Mortensen, Irons, Zellweger, costume designer David Robinson, property master Keith Walters, horse wrangler Rex Peterson, stunt coordinator Mike Watson, and locomotive engineer Charlie Greathouse participate.
"The Town" (5:08, SD) tours around the location-built set. Harris, production designer Waldemar Kalinowski, and Semler offer comments.
"Dean Semler's Return to the Western" (5:18, SD) includes warm words from Harris, but is primarily a thoughtful chat with Semler.
Last but not least is an assemblage of "Additional Footage" (12:03 with "Play All" option, HD), with optional commentary by Harris and Knott, that comprises six scenes, including the original prologue.
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