"Appaloosa" is half a good Western.
As a couple of itinerant lawmen whose partnership resembles a sexless marriage, Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen offer an entertaining twist on the horseback buddy picture.
Virgil Cole (Harris) and Everett Hitch (Mortensen) are hired guns paid by frontier towns to pin on badges and clean things up.
In the New Mexico burg of Appaloosa that means taking on a ruthless rancher, Bragg (Jeremy Irons), whose men terrorize the citizens. Bragg personally executed the former marshal, an old friend of Virgil and Everett.
None of this is original. Over the years we've seen plenty of power-mad cattle barons, timorous townsmen and laconic shootists, but Harris (in his second directing effort after 2000's "Pollack") and Mortensen strike the right note of a comfortable male relationship.
Harris' Virgil is steely, emotionally withdrawn and deadly. Socially he's somewhat graceless - when moved to speak, Virgil's thoughts often outrace his vocabulary, and it isn't uncommon for the well-read Everett to finish his partner's sentences.
While Virgil is good at intimidation and stoic slow burns, Everett displays a more sophisticated psychology.
Which is why his hackles rise when Allison French (Renee Zellweger) shows up.
Mrs. French is a widow who has hardly alit from the stagecoach when she starts batting her lashes at the flummoxed Virgil, who has all the romantic expertise of a pimply teen. Before long she and Virgil are an item, while Everett observes from the sidelines - at least until Mrs. French inexplicably makes a play for him as well.
Let's not mince words here: Zellweger nearly sinks the movie.
Her performance is like some sort of postmodern satiric deconstruction of the Western heroine. She sashays, she acts coy, she fans herself, she palpitates in a manner that's supposed to send out come-hither signals.
She does everything but swish her skirts and chirp "fiddle-dee-dee."
Zellweger's performance is so bad that for a while I imagined it was supposed to be bad, that Mrs. French is actually some saloon girl sent by the devious Bragg to pose as a helpless widow and destabilize the Virgil-Everett team.
But no. That would be too ambitious for the screenplay by Harris and Robert Knott (adapting Robert Parker's novel). Apparently Mrs. French is every bit the flighty idiot she appears.
Somebody had better shoot somebody, and pretty darn soon.
The film's production values are strong, and there's no denying the pleasures provided by Harris and especially Mortensen.
But while "Appaloosa" reminds of lots of other, better Westerns - "Lonesome Dove," "Open Range," the classic "My Darling Clementine"... even the recent AMC cable miniseries "Broken Trail" - it lacks the substantial story that would make it memorable.