Ed Harris’ Western ‘Appaloosa’ a tale of two men’s friendship

Posted Nov. 09, 2008, at 6:47 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 6:02 a.m.

In theaters

APPALOOSA, directed by Ed Harris, written by Robert Knott and Harris, 115 minutes, rated R.

The new Ed Harris movie, “Appaloosa,” is being billed as a Western, which it is, but mostly it’s a movie about the friendship between two men, which in this case helps it to transcend the genre and deepen the movie’s appeal.

Robert Knott and Harris based their script on Robert B. Parker’s novel, and what they have created is a film that says more in its long stretches of silence than most movies say with a mother lode of dialogue.

How they pull this off comes down to the cast with Harris and his co-star, a pitch-perfect Viggo Mortensen, creating a bond onscreen that resonates in a critical way — their chemistry generates the sort of interest that holds the film together during those stretches when it isn’t as action-driven as you might have hoped.

In fact, “Appaloosa” isn’t really driven by action at all. It’s driven by its characters and its subtle comedic undertone. Peppered with sidelong glances, the occasional shootout and double-cross, the movie places its importance on loyalties, the undoing of a villain armed with vicious connections, and how one woman, fighting to make it in the Old West, complicates the proceedings in an effort to survive.

In the movie, Harris is Virgil Cole, Appaloosa’s marshal-for-hire, who along with his best friend and second hand, Everett Hitch (Mortensen), is trying to bring one man to justice. That would be Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), who has been charged with murder and is about to be hanged for the crime. Bragg, a striking man who has the gift of eloquence, is having none of it. He does, after all, have power, money and the sort of friends who can intervene on his behalf — for a price.

As the story unfolds, another ties a noose around it — Cole must deal with his affections for Allison French (Renee Zellweger), a widow of questionable intent who “chews her food good,” looks pretty when she pinches her cheeks and does up her hair, and who can be a knockout in the right dress. Although Cole knows Allison is a drifter willing to fall into any man’s arms if it means keeping a roof over her head, he nevertheless becomes smitten with her, which becomes a cornerstone for the story as its more satisfying second half takes root.

Zellweger is the film’s weakest link — she has difficulty losing herself in the role. To be fair to her, the script doesn’t offer her many opportunities to do so. It’s a shallow part, slightly written, with the actress left stranded amid material that would rather focus on the dynamics between Cole and Hitch.

To that end, the movie is solid — it rides on a backbone of cliches, occasionally kicks them up and makes the genre its own. Harris is excellent, nicely recalling elements of Clint Eastwood at his coolest, but he also generously steps aside and allows Mortensen to reveal just how good he can be, which is pretty terrific, as fans of “Eastern Promises,” “The Lord of the Rings” movies and “A History of Violence” will attest.

Grade: B

On Blu-ray Disc

8 MILE, directed by Curtis Hanson, written by Scott Silver, 111 minutes, rated R.

The title of Curtis Hanson’s “8 Mile,” now out on Blu-ray disc, comes from the stretch of highway that divides the racially mixed inner city of Detroit from its predominantly white, middle-class suburbs. On a map, it’s an area about the size of a postage stamp; economically, it might as well be a continent away.

On the surface, “8 Mile” seems to promise a story that will transcend that gap, but it doesn’t, at least not completely.

This is a rap movie designed to appeal to a specific demographic — the white, suburban audience on the privileged side of the tracks. As such, it’s generic and unthreatening without being boring, a slick, claustrophobic drama that pretends to be edgy but which actually isn’t. It homogenizes the rap scene and offers zero insight into hip-hop culture.

That it goes out of its way to push as few buttons as possible is the film’s biggest surprise and its greatest shortcoming, especially since it’s billed as the semiautobiography of its controversial star, Eminem, the gifted yet polarizing rapper who once made a fortune by pushing the world’s buttons.

Set in 1995, the movie follows Jimmy Smith Jr. (Eminem), a scrappy 20-something nicknamed Bunny Rabbit who aspires to get away from his boozy mother (Kim Basinger) and become a rap star. Considering he’s white, that will be almost impossible to pull off, but with the help of his best friend (Mekhi Phifer), who emcees a weekly rap battle, and his new girlfriend (Brittany Murphy), he nevertheless has the support he needs even if he doesn’t have the self-confidence to succeed immediately.

Like so much of this unusually timid movie, the rap contest that closes the film is engaging but not electrifying. It fails to mine the intensity of Eminem’s best songs. As an actor, Eminem has presence to spare, but the film doesn’t allow him to fully capture the rage that defines so much of his work. It makes him almost approachable, which proves especially disappointing, sort of like if Madonna had released her “Sex” book without the sex.

Grade: C

WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and archive of movie reviews. Smith’s reviews appear Mondays, Fridays and weekends in Lifestyle, as well as on bangordailynews.com. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.

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