New Line
At Quality 16 and Showcase
3 out of 5 Stars

While it doesn’t stack up to the year-end, Oscar-season fare that’ll soon flood theaters, “Appaloosa” is a good enough film to make you wish it was better.

Teaming Viggo Mortensen (“Eastern Promises”) and Ed Harris (“Gone Baby Gone”) as gruff law enforcers in the Old West (Harris also directs), the film has a charming boldness about it and manages never to get too serious. A classic western in so many ways, “Appaloosa” is also strikingly modern, with its hero Everett Hitch (Mortensen) contemplating nuanced dilemmas old Gary Cooper would have just shot up. The constant reality checks the film presents through humorous little asides serve to depressurize a tense plot involving the usual themes of law, order, fortune and manhood.

Like “3:10 to Yuma” one year before it, “Appaloosa” is proof that Westerns can still be fresh and innovative. That said, the film has its share of flaws. Winding plot tributaries, confusing character motivations and a cold, diminutive leading lady detract from the genuine thematic chemistry created by Mortensen and Harris. Another problem is the villain — a poorly cast Jeremy Irons (“Kingdom of Heaven”) — who sounds a lot like Daniel Day-Lewis in “There Will Be Blood,” but brings none of the emotional force or relevance.

Still, the film works for the most part, and it’s worth seeing just for the masterful blend of candor and gravity in Mortensen’s performance.

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