The Western as a genre is long dead—at least in the sense that the old stories of bringing order to lawlessness (or lawlessness to the unsettled territories) have been played out in countless iterations, and only a strong, original vision can make a fresh impression. In other words, it's become a director's game in the years since Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch laid the genre to bloody rest, and those without the chops of, say, Robert Altman (McCabe & Mrs. Miller), Sergio Leone (Once Upon A Time In The West), or Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven) shouldn't bother. Any traditional oater won't do.
In the early going, Appaloosa does an efficient job of establishing the tense standoff between lawmen-for-hire Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen, and a tyrannical rancher (an extravagantly sinister Jeremy Irons), who holds an entire New Mexico town under his thumb. In the face of threats—first latent, then direct—from Irons and his murderous lackeys, Harris and Mortensen are unyielding in laying down the law, even though the bad guys vastly outnumber them. (Yes, it's a little like a Western twist on Road House with Patrick Swayze.) The strength of their partnership gets called into question when fetching widow Reneé Zellweger lopes into town and isn't one of the "whores or squaws" with whom they generally seek company.
There isn't that much wrong with Harris' Appaloosa, exactly: It's generally well-acted and good-humored, and its premise of traveling lawmen who establish order through their own possibly corrupt rules isn't bad. Yet just as Harris the director brought none of the dynamism that might have animated Jackson Pollock's life to his ham-fisted biopic Pollock, his merely serviceable staging of Appaloosa does the film (and the Robert B. Parker novel it's based on) no favors, especially when its plot recalls the superior likes of Rio Bravo or Unforgiven. As with many other mediocre actor-directors, Harris' attention to the performances, including his own fine turn, has cost him in other areas. In the modern Western, it isn't enough to be a capable dramatist; as the film's love triangle goes limp and its epic confrontation never quite materializes, Harris doesn't appear to care that his movie will look all too comfortable unfolding between truck commercials on TNT.