Virgil Cole (Harris) and Everett Hitch (Mortensen) are freelance lawmen, plying their trade—what they call “gun work”—to towns with no laws; and so it is that they ride into dusty Appaloosa, convince the town leaders to turn control of the joint over to them and promptly get to work cleaning up (or gunning down) the gang of rabble-rousers led by villainous Randall Bragg (a somewhat underused Jeremy Irons).
Appaloosa is nothing if not laid-back—really laid-back. Amidst its wide-open landscapes are spaces equally large within the ultra spare dialogue. Most of the early going pleasures are in seeing how much fun Harris and Mortensen have tossing off their lines.
Eventually a woman must arrive, and she does, in the form of Zellweger’s Allie French, a widowed piano teacher who falls in love with Cole. But French is not entirely the innocent damsel she at first presents, having developed her own pragmatic strategy for surviving on the frontier. The easy-going story picks up the pace after Lance Henriksen shows up as a rival gunfighter, and Cole and Hitch leave Appaloosa behind for a showdown in the Mexican-looking town of Rio Seco.
The themes throughout are familiar: the bonds between men, the desire for domesticity in the arms of a good woman versus the desire to remain free, most of all the challenge of establishing justice in places where the rule of law is more hope than hard fact. Too bad Harris is content to casually put these ideas on display rather than to put them through their paces. The relationship between the two men is not tested in the most gratifying way, and the intriguing shifting of alliances between the town fathers and Bragg is given short shrift. Still, Harris and Mortensen are an appealing team, and the shoot-outs are appealingly no-nonsense.