"I've never taken the legal side of it too seriously," the laconic sidekick Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) confesses to Virgil Cole (Ed Harris), the stoical city marshal in this leisurely traditional western. "I figured it's just a way to feel easier about being a gunman." Cole, eyes on the horizon, says: "I take it serious. What the hell am I if I don't?" Thus the ever-flexible cowboy genre becomes the vehicle for reflections on the US Patriot Act. The frontier town of Appaloosa has been overrun by Jeremy Irons and his band of roughnecks (as implausible in practice as on paper). Irons plays Randall Bragg, who murdered the last marshal. The aldermen call in Cole and Hitch to lay down the law but Cole insists on drafting it as he goes. Worse, he appears to be slightly doolally, beating up a teamster without provocation and romancing the insufferable Allison French (Renée Zellweger, here playing a merry widow with a hyperactive nesting instinct). "You think any man who makes a living as a gunhand isn't crazy?" Hitch reassures the council. The way is clear for an essay on the theme: "Who watches the watchmen?" Yet there's never any doubt that Cole's special legal powers are justified. Indeed, by the time Bragg has got rich, bought the town hotel and cosied up to the local worthies, all sense of moral inquiry has petered out into glib equivocations and there's not much to sustain the interest besides Cole and Hitch's gently comic buddy dynamic. Harris directs with a sure enough hand but this full-dress cinematic western actually looks like the poor relation when stood next to TV's Deadwood, the last word in philosophical cowboy yarns.
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