Warning! Spoilers for the movie “Appaloosa” follow!
As I have blogged here numerous times, the western is near and dear to my heart. Likewise I’ve blogged about the infamous adage that the western is dead.
I don’t believe it is dead but it certainly could be if movies like “Appaloosa” are all that’s in the offing.
Following are several reasons why this film is such a disappointment. I am basing my evaluation on the film I saw this weekend. I have not read the book by Robert B. Parker.
First, it was immediately stamped with the Hollywood cliché of six dead bodies within the first 15-20 minutes of the film. Let me be clear – I expect death in a western. Westerns are no fun without at least one bad guy killed. A western without the death of a bad guy is just fruufy-girlie stuff. But violence on film simply for the sake of violence has no merit, no value, and looks like exactly what it is – a desperate attempt to be shocking. This overload of violence is present in all the recent films I’ve seen. Even every single movie previewed before the start of Appaloosa was filled with violence. And guess what? It doesn’t qualify as shocking. It’s just another tiresome Hollywood cliché.
And speaking of Hollywood clichés, they were sure not to miss the gratuitous language and nudity. Predictability is sometimes comforting, but not in the case of the Hollywood cliché.
But the most disappointing thing was the story itself. The story-line has certainly been done. That’s no problem. Storylines are rehashed all the time. If it weren’t for stories constantly being retold, romance readers would only be able to read one romance book and there’d be nothing else to read. The same applies to all kinds of story-types. The concept of lawmen going through the harshest trials to uphold the law is a fine, upstanding tradition in the western genre. But it fell flat in this film. The reason? This film had no protagonists to root for.
I also have always been a sucker for “buddy stories” – probably my favorite type of story to read. And it’s the hope of having my desire for a buddy story fulfilled that kept me in my seat at the theater for the entire course of the movie even though I wanted to get up and walk out halfway through its airing. I thought the film would deliver the buddy goods.
The characters never lived up to their potential. The story features two for-hire lawmen, Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch, friends who have worked together for years. They have an easy camaraderie that makes you start to like them, interspersed with bits of humor. They come to Appaloosa, a small town in New Mexico to bring justice to the town and wrest it from the clutches of the rancher Bragg, who has murdered a sheriff and two deputies in cold blood and is doing what he will with the town.
Awesome concept – the stuff legendary western characters are made of. When this concept is well done it is fantastic to watch. Yes, they bring Bragg to trial and narrowly escape a number of tense moments to do so. But in the end, the bad guy, Bragg, dies for stupid reasons. I’ll come to that in a minute.
Now enter the typical woman in the picture who is to be Virgil’s love interest. Seems innocuous enough at first. But before the stakes are even at their highest, when her character should have been developed to the point that I cared about what happens to her, we learn this bimbo is a two-faced cat, so there is no reason to root for her. Yet when Bragg’s henchmen kidnap her in trade for Bragg, Virgil orders the other lawmen on the train to put down their guns and release Bragg to save her.
Why, for heaven’s sake?
And if I wasn’t already under-whelmed with the movie’s bimbo, Virgil and Everett chase down the men who have the woman and find her frolicking in the river with her captors.
Ultimately, the murderous bad guy, Bragg, weasels out of being hanged by receiving a pardon from the President, Chester Arthur.
The last 20-30 minutes of film loses tension very rapidly as we go through a lot of sit around and chat scenes (with little value added).
But hey, there’s still the buddy element, right? Virgil and Everett are back at Appaloosa enforcing the law. Which was weird because I figured since their work was done, there was no further reason to stay in Appaloosa. I figured our buddy team would ride off into the sunset for their next challenge. Or stay and find a way to bring Bragg to justice.
Um. . .no.
Early on the film established the bimbo wasn’t worth the trouble, but Everett knows that she’s going to latch on to whoever wields the most power in town. Even his partner, Virgil, whose love interest she is supposed to be knows this. And since Bragg has arrogantly come to reclaim top dog status in the town of Appaloosa, predictably the bimbo zeroes in on him. Virgil’s buddy Everett wants to eliminate the threat so that friend Virgil can have at least a short term shot at a life with Allie.
So Everett draws Bragg into a gunfight in the street (and not even a very tense one) kills him, and he rides off into the sunset. Without Virgil.
At that point I was spluttering mad at having spent a hard earned $9.75 on this movie.
Now you’d think Virgil would finally say “Enough. I ain’t that stupid. This bimbo ain’t worth breaking up a partnership.” Well….no. He just stands there looking lame while his longtime friend rides off into the sunset alone and he stays with the floozy. And I might mention never once in the movie did I get the feeling he particularly cared for her (can we say lack of motivation?)
The woman had absolutely no character arc. She was a floozy when she came in, she was a floozy when it ended. Virgil didn’t seem to learn much either.
The only one I had any marginal amount of respect for was Everett, and I didn’t think he was all that smart either.
These actors worked well together on film. They are enjoyable to watch together. What killed them was the crummy story.
They did not demonstrate the code of ethics I require for a good western experience. That doesn’t mean they have to be perfect and always make right choices, but it does mean you don’t bust up a partnership for a bimbo who’s nothing more then a fling. It does mean you don’t build a protagonist in a film who comes under the category of “too-stupid-to-live”. Very bad idea.
And beyond this storyline, I think the single greatest reason why the recent western films I’ve seen are such a tremendous disappointment is wrapped up in just one thing. All of these films are dark. When I watch them, I feel no sense of hope for humanity. Not even a trickle of hope.
No, I don’t mean the protagonist has to ride away on his horse strumming his guitar and singing like my hero Roy Rogers, but when a true western code of ethics is built into a western film or story, whether the ending is in their favor or not, I should be able to walk away first, having been proud of the protagonist and the effort they made and second, feeling hopeful, uplifted by the potential of man.
In this film, I wasn’t. In fact, I came away depressed. If this is all humanity has to strive for, if this is all we’re going to stretch ourselves to be, we may as well give up now.
I’ll think twice before plunking down any more hard-earned money on the Hollywood-ized western.