Appaloosa, A Book and Film Review

It was a long time ago, now, and there were many gunfights to follow, but I remember as well, perhaps, as I remember anything, the first time I saw Virgil Cole shoot. Time slowed down for him. He fought with an odd stateliness. Always steady and never fast, but always faster than the man he was fighting.

Last year I saw a trailer for Appaloosa, the cinematic adaptation of Robert B. Parker’s western novel, directed by Ed Harris, starring Harris and Viggo Mortensen. This trailer got me very excited, as I’ve been a huge fan of Parker’s for a very long time, I love westerns, and Ed Harris is not only a damn fine actor but a superior director as well (proven in 2000’s Pollock). And Viggo’s no slouch either, nor is Jeremy Irons, who’s also in the film.

But Appaloosa had actually sat unread on my shelf for a couple of years because Parker’s previous foray into the old West, Gunman’s Rhapsody (a novel about Wyatt Earp, one of my favorite historical figures), had been a disappointment. I’d intended to get to it (thus the fact it was on the shelf at all), but hadn’t yet. Since I generally prefer to read a book before seeing the movie it inspires, I immediately rescued Appaloosa from its lonely spot and dove in.

Short review: the book’s awesome. These old West peacekeepers walk the same metaphorical mean streets as Parker’s other tough guys, like Spenser, Hawk, and Jesse Stone, dusty as the streets in the town of Appaloosa may be. The familiar Parker themes are all here, the honor and friendship between men, the unflagging devotion to a woman loved (even when it’s probably not deserved), the violent life lived according to a code…and all that stuff works perfectly in this milieu. Additionally, as Parker himself has aged, his treatment of these themes has deepened; there is more of a sense of human fallibility in his characters these days, and the codes they live by don’t always serve them well.

Finishing the book, I was even more jazzed about the movie. But for various reasons, I didn’t manage to get out to see it in the theater, so my excitement shifted to the day it was due on DVD (and, more importantly to me with my PS3, Blu-Ray), which was this past Tuesday.

I watched it, and really enjoyed it, though it doesn’t ascend to the level of some other westerns in recent years, like 2007’s dynamite remake of 3:10 to Yuma. It’s full of great performances, very true to the novel, gorgeously shot, and every detail onscreen is researched and thought out, from the stamped tin stars worn by the lawmen to the varying architectural styles of a frontier town built piecemeal over time by people of differing cultural backgrounds. It’s not an action film, maintaining the low-key and straightforward tone and pace of Parker’s novel, and ultimately works best as a character drama rather than an adventure story. To some, it may actually be too realistic for a good western. To others, it may rise above other films in the genre for that very reason.

Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen have incredible chemistry, both laconic but Harris very stolid and forthright while Mortensen’s more playful and ironic. Jeremy Irons is, go figure, a great villain, but beyond that, he is such a perfect western bad guy it’s amazing he’s never been in one before. The cast beyond them is full of great character actors like Lance Henriksen, Timothy Spall, and James Gammon, who all bring their characters vividly to life. The only role I’d have cast differently was Allie: Renee Zellweger doesn’t really bring much to the character.

The book was more satisfying overall, though I have little doubt I’d have enjoyed the film more had I not read the book first. Still, I did really like the movie, and it put me back in the mood to read Parker’s follow-up books, Resolution and Brimstone.

One odd note, especially considering the incredible effort Harris and his team put into making a film so authentic to its period, was that as the credits roll, a Tom Petty (Mudcrutch) song starts to play. It’s a fine enough tune, but I hate when Hollywood does this. It just doesn’t fit. Then, as is my wont, I let the credits play, and after the Petty tune, another more appropriate song started up, and I instantly recognized the voice of the singer: Ed Harris. I watched the credits to see if I was right, and sure enough, the song “You’ll Never Leave My Heart” was not only sung by Harris, it was co-written by him. And while Harris’s rough performance doesn’t reach Johnny Cash levels, he does hover in Robert “Thunder Road” Mitchum territory, and fares far better than Lee “Born Under A Wanderin’ Star” Marvin. Not only was the song absolutely appropriate for the film, unlike the Petty, it was good enough I now have it on my iPod.

Give it a listen at this link.

And when the day does come,
when you and I do part…
You’ll be the one who’s leavin’,
’cause you’ll never leave my heart…

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