Picks and Pans Review: Appaloosa

updated 09/29/2008 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/29/2008 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Renée Zellweger | R

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Westerns may have gone the way of the Old West—showing up at multiplexes about as frequently as brass spittoons at a saloon these days—but the entertaining Appaloosa makes an excellent case that there's plenty of spark left in the genre.

Set in 1882, the film stars Harris (who cowrote and directed) as an itinerant, gunslinging lawman. He's hired, along with his trusty deputy (Mortensen), to stop a murderous local rancher (Jeremy Irons, doing a live-action version of his snide Scar from The Lion King) in Appaloosa, a town in the New Mexico territories. When a fetching widow (Zellweger) comes to the burg, the bachelor marshal considers putting down roots.

Appaloosa has all the standard elements of a western (shoot-outs, horses and open spaces), but what makes it so pleasurable is its concentration on character. There's caring effort, in the sharp writing and acting, to make sure we fully understand each of the main characters and their motivations. All three leads are effective, with a lean, squinty-eyed Mortensen in particular showing yet again what a magnetic, underrated star he is.

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