Adapted from the Robert B. Parker novel (one of his breaks from the Spenser series), the story is set in the small town of Appaloosa, New Mexico, in the late 1800s, when the West was still wild, and if the railroad was coming through, it was the right place to set up shop.
The problem in Appaloosa, though, is that in one case, the wrong kind of person has moved to town. Wealthy, well-dressed, well-educated Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) has settled in with a gang of lackeys and has decided to call the place his own, terrorizing or killing anyone who crosses him.
The helpless local politicians hire some help, bringing in rogue lawman Virgil Cole (Harris) and his longtime deputy Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) to do some cleaning up. (Translation: Either neutralize Bragg or kill him.)
Slow, quiet, and determined in their work, as well as being fearless and excellent shots, Virgil and Hitch -- neither of whom speaks much -- proceed to do just that.
Actually, nobody says much in Appaloosa. When they do, it's usually quiet and polite, which only adds to the ever-increasing tension.
But during one of the camera's sweeping shots of the vast stretches of land around this place in the middle of nowhere, it stops on a train, which deposits the prim and proper Allison French (Rene Zellweger). An enigmatic beauty, she dresses nicely, has a bit of luggage, says she's left a dead husband behind, can play the piano, has only a dollar to her name, and is looking for a hotel and a new life. She also casually asks if the new marshal is married.
From that point, the film becomes the story of what might happen to the equally solid and fragile relationship between Cole and Hitch when this new person enters their lives. The two men initially don't seem to know each other very well, even though they've been riding together for years. But the obviously well-read Hitch is always there to finish one of Cole's sentences when he regularly and absentmindedly calls out, "What's the word I'm lookin' for?"
Hitch is also there to calm Cole down when he loses control and lets loose with a violent rampage. It's an interesting side of Cole that, unfortunately, the script doesn't play up enough. It's as interesting as his ability to become something of a sweet guy when Allie hints that she's ready for some romancing.
But Appaloosa is always eager to get back to its basic story of black and white -- good guys versus bad guys. Everything that can go wrong in the town, between our heroes, and between Cole and Allie, does go wrong.
In the end, because Appaloosa follows in the grand tradition of other distinguished Westerns, the film turns out to focus not on the two men and the woman who might be coming between them, but just on the two men. The well-written and nicely acted ending shows the true meaning of friendship in an era when that was more important than anything else. (Rated R)