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Speed Racer

Release Date: September 19

Director: Ed Harris

Writers: Robert Knott, Ed Harris

Cinematographer: Dean Semler

Starring: Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Jeremy Irons, Renée Zellweger

Studio/Run Time: Warner Bros. Pictures, 114 mins.

If you're setting out to make a Western, you can deconstruct and reinvent the genre like filmmakers have been doing for four decades. Or, you can rely on the tried and true conventions of a bygone era: loners on the plain, justice in the barrel of a gun, and romance thwarted by hard life on the range. In the hands of a good director, even the basics of this purely American genre have a certain charm.

Speed RacerFor Appaloosa, his second film as a director, Ed Harris relies firmly on the basics. And on paper it seems like they could work: a bad man (Jeremy Irons sounding a bit like Daniel Day-Lewis) and his gang run the town of Appaloosa, but the new marshall (Harris) and his deputy (Viggo Mortenson) aim to clean up the place. Meanwhile, a perfumed, corseted, petticoated woman (Renée Zellwegger) steps off a train and catches the eye of the marshal who marvels at her being neither a whore nor a squaw.
Appaloosa has a solid enough opening, and it should be fun just to watch things play out, what with all the shootouts, the trains, the swagger at gunpoint. But the script (co-written by Harris) is alternately dumb and lifeless. The villain with his dozen men can't seem to best a marshal and his deputy in a contest of brute force, and the romance, which seems like it was meant to be comic relief, repeatedly grinds everything to a halt, mostly because there's very little to laugh at and nothing much to be relieved of. The turgid, tentative courtship between the marshal and miss Allison French operates like junior high locker gossip ("Did she mention me?"), and the banter between the marshal and his loyal right hand sounds like reheated dialogue from Butch and Sundance.
The performances are convincing enough that I wish these characters were in a better movie. Harris himself is wearing lots of hats on this project, and he seems particularly comfortable in the 10-gallon variety. But as a director he offers no firm ground for our hooves to catch. There's plenty of scenery but no visual scheme to situate his characters in a world more complicated than "he good, he bad, she perty, town quaint."
One reason the Western has been so adaptable since the birth of cinema, even as attitudes toward, say, Indians, have changed, is that talented directors have used those wide vistas and harsh elements as moral purifiers. A butte can make a big man tiny. Red clay can make a white skirt dingy. But scenery without ideas can't make a mediocre movie good.
Watch the trailer for Appaloosa: