TORONTO Westerns have been around as long as moving pictures, and two movies at this week's Toronto film festival, including Ed Harris's "Appaloosa," show how the old standard has taken wildly different looks over a century.
From 1903's "The Great Train Robbery," westerns have traditionally painted a black-and-white picture of good versus bad, but Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven" in 1992 updated -- or to some critics, redefined -- them by stripping away romance from a tale of a cold-blooded killer struggling to change his ways.
For actor-turned-filmmaker Harris, 57, who won acclaim with his 2000 directing debut "Pollock," the "revisionist" tag was far from his mind when tackling the genre he was raised on.
"I knew in my head when I was doing this that I didn't want to modernize it, I didn't want to make apologies for it. I didn't want it to be shot in a way that felt modern or new," Harris told Reuters.
In fact, he takes a straight-shooter's approach to adapting the Robert B. Parker novel about a pair of hired guns, Virgil Cole (Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen), whose job is to protect a mining town from a powerful rancher.
Harris said he stepped back from the director's chair after "Pollock" to spend time with his daughter. But after reading the novel, he took an immediate liking to it, particularly the friendship between the hired guns.
Shot on a lean $20 million budget and a tight schedule, the film opens with a murder and ends with a shootout -- traditional plot points that bookend the story. In between, a woman (Renee Zellweger) threatens to come between the two men.
"Yeah, it's got action, and yes people get shot, and yes there's tension, but it's about human beings," said Harris.
BULLETS, BULLETS, MORE BULLETS
At the opposite end of the genre is Toronto's North American premiere of South Korean director Kim Jee-woon's "The Good, the Bad, the Weird," with a frenetic pace and a title that plays on the 1966 spaghetti western "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly," directed by Sergio Leone.
While the movie takes its stylistic cues from 1960s westerns, even ending with the de rigueur shootout, the pace and body count owe more to director Quentin Tarantino and his films such as "Pulp Fiction" than to Leone.
Set in 1930s Japanese-occupied Manchuria, the "kimchi western" follows three Koreans -- a bounty hunter, a bandit, and a train robber. They battle each other, as well as gangs and the Japanese army, with a seemingly endless supply of bullets in pursuit of a map that will lead to buried treasure.
"The Good, the Bad, the Weird" opens with a train robbery where the main characters cross paths, then evolves into a chase movie with much slapstick comedy amid fast-paced dialogue and bloody violence.
With a $17 million budget, it is the most expensive South Korean picture ever, and fans of Korean movies hope it will revive the country's troubled film industry with a wildly different spin on an old genre.
Yet, even as Westerns seem to undergo numerous revisions Harris, for one, said he isn't ready to say the old Hollywood standard is a dying breed.
"It's kind of an American art form, and I think it always kind of seems to get resuscitated."
(Editing by Eric Beech)
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