As itinerant lawmen Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch lope into New Mexico Territory in 1882, their horses kicking up dust in the unpaved street, a little boy points them out to his comrade and says, “Hey, cool!” That tells you right away what you're going to get with “Appaloosa:” a familiar tale, cloaked in novelty, with plenty of atmosphere and too little attention to detail. That's enough here to give pleasure without utter satisfaction.
Ed Harris adapted Robert Parker's novel with screenwriter Robert Knott, directed the film and stars as Cole, though he's made the most memorable character Viggo Mortensen's Hitch. (Or maybe Mortensen has made him most memorable.) The icy-eyed Harris is no stranger to characters who express themselves better with actions than words – he played angry artist Jackson Pollock in the last picture he directed – and the dictatorial, even brutal Cole treats his calm sidekick as a combination of confidant, conscience, and dispenser of common sense. They're like id and superego; together, they're the ideal team to tame the frontier.
They've come to the town of the title to rescue it from rapacious Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), who's reputedly a rancher but gets his living by robbing others and his fun from watching his swinish associates tear up the territory. When Bragg kills the marshal and two deputies, the town's dandified aldermen hire Cole and Hitch to impose marshal law. (Pardon the pun, but they're given a near-absolute, incontrovertible authority.)
Into this maelstrom comes Allie French (Renée Zellweger), who arrives with one dollar, no job, no man, no kin and no prospects. She turns out to be a filly who always aligns herself with the nearest stallion – Cole for choice, but also Hitch or unsavory gunman Ring Shelton (Lance Henriksen, who has added dramatic and physical bulk over the years). Despite her roving eye, faithful Cole sticks to her like a burr to a saddlebag.
Harris is most comfortable exploring the transformation of wild open spaces into calm public places. (New Mexico didn't even become a state under federal law until 1912.) Cinematographer Dean Semler makes this looks like an unforgiving land, one of sandy flats and pale skies, with none of the gorgeous vistas John Ford favored.
The film's main difficulty is sloppiness in smaller elements, from the misspelling on an office door (“City Marshall”) to a sudden act of stupidity neither Cole nor Hitch would commit. Most crucially, we never find out anything about Allie French that explains her sudden presence in Appaloosa, and Zellweger's elephantine coyness doesn't blind us to this discrepancy.
Any film about a hero who suspends rights in the name of justice, however sensibly, inevitably seems these days like a metaphor for the role of government in modern times. How much power should the citizens of Appaloosa cede?
Bragg qualifies as a terrorist, with his random cruelty, and Cole and Hitch are the only people likely to stop him – though you wouldn't want to leave them in charge after they did. Maybe Harris is telling us there is no wise answer for all times, but a different answer suited to every time.