Appaloosa (R) ***
Lawmen form bond in Wild West.
By Connie Ogle, The Miami Herald
Essentially a buddy movie in which the cops tote shotguns and travel on four legs instead of four wheels, Appaloosa takes the traditional notion of a lone lawman fighting injustice and turns it successfully on its head. Based on a spritely western by detective novelist Robert B. Parker, creator of the Spenser series, the film follows the exploits of Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen), gunslinging partners in a ''peacekeeping'' business who are hired by town officials to keep villains in check.
But when the partners take on a job in Appaloosa, a ragtag settlement in the New Mexico territory, the job tests not only their friendship but also their mettle. Rogue rancher Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons, not entirely adept at swallowing that plummy accent) has shot up an Appaloosa marshal, and the city elders want him stopped. Cole and Hitch eventually capture him, but a distraction in the form of the widowed piano player Mrs. French (Renée Zellweger) flits into town and pretty soon all sorts of chaos follows.
The film doesn't carry the narrative or philosophical weight of last year's excellent remake of 3:10 to Yuma, but it turns out to be a satisfying, if occasionally wandering, adventure. The screenplay lifts lines wholesale from Parker's pithy dialogue, and director Harris, who also directed and starred in 2000's biopic Pollack, brings a dusty realism to the setting. Alternately tough and amusing, he's the perfect actor to play this gruff but secretly vulnerable character, who transforms engagingly from man-of-few-words to nervous suitor whenever Mrs. French arrives on the scene. Sadly, the audience will feel a lot less affection for the flighty widow. Zellweger seems miscast, too modern for the 1882 setting, and supremely unworthy of the attention lavished on her, although Cole points out that he, like most of the men of Appaloosa, are accustomed to far less genteel womenfolk. ''She's very clean,'' he tells Hitch, ''and she chews her food nice.'' Such is romance before the advent of indoor plumbing.
The real love story here, though -- no Brokeback jokes, please -- is between Cole and the laconic, West Point-educated Hitch, whose genuine affection for the older man turns out to be the film's heart. Watching him casually supply words while Cole struggles for them is a treat -- the two actors play off each other with a delightful, understated comic timing. Theirs is a partnership for the ages, and the crafty creators of Appaloosa make great use of it.
Cast: Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Jeremy Irons, Renée Zellweger
Director: Ed Harris
Screenwriters: Ed Harris, Robert Knott. Based on the book by Robert B. Parker
Producers: Ed Harris, Robert Knott, Ginger Sledge
A Warner Bros. release. Running time: 114 minutes. Some violence, language. Playing at area theaters.