THERE is perhaps no genre as full of pitfalls for contemporary filmmakers as the Western.
Last year's crop were either pretentious ("The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford") or ramped up the violence to absurd excess (the remake of "3:10 to Yuma").
Ed Harris, though, directs the old-school Western "Appaloosa" in a refreshingly straightforward style.
It's as no-nonsense as his lead performance as Virgil Cole, a leathery gunfighter with nerves of steel. He is hired by the city of Appaloosa in the New Mexico Territory.
It's 1882, and city fathers (led by Timothy Spall) want the streets made safe for business after rancher Randall Brigg (Jeremy Irons in an intriguing bit of casting) has killed the marshal.
So they hire Virgil, who arrives with his longtime deputy Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) and suspends the city's laws in favor of his own, much stricter ones.
Given that Harris bears more than a passing resemblance to a certain Republican presidential candidate, it looks for a spell like Harris and his co-screenwriter, Robert Knott, might be fixing to offer up a political allegory in this reverse twist on "High Noon."
Fortunately, Harris heads off in a more interesting direction in an adaptation that sticks close to a novel by Robert B. Parker, including much witty dialogue taken directly from the printed page.
Virgil and Everett are two of the more talkative Western heroes we've seen in a while, and their exact relationship is intriguing.
Everett tells us in narration that Virgil's contact with women has been limited to "whores and squaws." Indeed, the new marshal's motto is "feelings get you killed."
So Everett is possibly jealous, certainly bemused and finally concerned when a piano-playing widow named Allison French (Renee Zellweger, in her first tolerable performance since "Cold Mountain") arrives in Appaloosa and his smitten pal begins building a house for her.
Things come to a head as Virgil puts Randall on trial for murder and the widow is abducted.
Harris, whose only previous directorial effort was the vastly different "Pollock," has an abiding affection and affinity for the Western, paying homage to "Rio Bravo" among more obvious sources.
Beautifully photographed by Dean Semler, "Appaloosa" is the best Western since "Open Range" (2003) and shows there's still life in this most unfashionable of genres.