Gunfights are usually over in the time it takes to read this sentence. Of course, realism does not always make for good drama, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly would be about a tenth of its glorious three-hour running time if it skimped on the trickling beads of sweat and the twitching fingers.
But Ed Harris, who co-wrote, directed, and stars in Appaloosa, has other things to contend with besides who can outdraw whom, mostly because the answer is always the same: Virgil Cole (Harris himself), a man who's been wearing a black hat for too long. At one point, Virgil and his partner Everett (Viggo Mortensen) lie wounded on the ground after dispatching three opponents, and Everett remarks on how quickly it was over. "Everybody could shoot," Virgil groans.
He and Everett wander the West taking lawkeeping work wherever they can get it. Soon, though, the gunplay takes a back seat to Allie French (Renee Zellweger), a woman who rolls into town with only a dollar to her name and no marketable skills to speak of. She utterly confounds Virgil, until he starts to think about living a simpler life, maybe with her.
Later, though, we start to understand how Allie has survived thus far: She hitches herself to the most powerful man around and hides behind him. Women may not enjoy this portrayal (and with good reason), but something about it rings true given the period. The West was hard on unmarried women, and a tough boyfriend could keep you alive.
Appaloosa is a big, sprawling, scenic Western (rated R for violence and some brief, indistinct nudity), but it feels oddly domestic, and in a good way. The characters, including some wonderful English actors like Timothy Spall and Jeremy Irons, are all well-drawn (Mortensen is especially good), and there's a welcome sense of humor in the dialogue. It's neither Sergio Leone nor John Ford, but it's welcome all the same.