Saturday, 7 September 2013

Movie Review: Tombstone (1993)


A comprehensive recounting of Wyatt Earp's life immediately before and after the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Tombstone is a thoughtful and often absorbing western.

It's the early 1880s, and brothers Wyatt (Kurt Russell), Virgil (Sam Elliott) and Morgan (Bill Paxton) Earp relocate to the booming town of Tombstone, Arizona, looking to settle down and make some money. A retired lawman, Wyatt wants to stay away from matters of law and order, and just focus on business. In Tombstone he reunites with his old friend Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer), a gunfighter, gambler, womanizer and hard drinker, suffering from an unshakable bout of tuberculosis. Despite having the committed companionship of Mattie Blaylock (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson), Wyatt is captivated by Josephine Marcus (Dana Delany) a free-spirited traveling singer.

The Earps' desire for a quiet life is disrupted by marauders known as the Cowboys, led by "Curly Bill" Brocius (Powers Boothe), and including Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn) and Ike Clanton (Stephen Lang). A series of distasteful encounters with the Cowboys convince the Earps to once again become lawmen, and Virgil's desire for Tombstone to be gun-free triggers the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Afterwards, Wyatt, Doc and their supporters go after the Cowboys in a wild rampage through the west that will only end when Wyatt's lust for vengeance is satisfied.

A troubled production that aimed for a faithful, epic re-telling of the Wyatt Earp story with all other characters explored in-depth, Tombstone suffered from ambition that exceeded realistic ability, and also butted heads with Kevin Costner's competing, and inferior, production of Wyatt Earp (1994). Tombstone ended with screenwriter Kevin Jarre fired as director, George Pan Cosmatos nominally appointed as director to rescue the runaway production, and star Kurt Russell actually calling the directorial shots, trimming some of his own scenes to reign in the movie's scope.

Given the production challenges, the final film is much better than it has any right to be, and may be one of the most compelling versions of the Earp story. Admittedly the start is slow, and too many rough-and-ready characters are introduced in dizzying succession, with too few of them allowed the luxury of time to properly develop. Lawmen, politicians, bad-guys, businessmen, entertainers and their women occupy the world of Tombstone, and Jarre's original intent was full and detailed backstories for all. That film would have run for many hours. This one comes in at 130 minutes, and between Cosmatos, Russell and a team of three editors, it is hammered into coherent shape.

And once the introductions are set, Tombstone shifts into gear, picks up pace, and runs smoothly. While Wyatt remains at the centre of the story, more of the spotlight is shared, as Virgil, Doc, Brocius, Ringo and Josephine receive plenty of attention. With a portrayal of Tombstone as a mud-splattered frontier town, rough around the edges and almost all made of edges, the characters come to life in a realistic, unglamourous setting.

Much credit goes to Russell, who gives Wyatt Earp all the soul missing from other movie versions of the story. Here Earp is tired of a life as a lawman, eager to be free to make money and move on if necessary, curious about the opportunity offered by Josephine, and quite reluctant to get involved with the Cowboys in any official capacity. He is also quick-witted, self-aware, and loyal to his brothers and to Doc Holliday.

Good as Russell is, Val Kilmer is even better, and he steals the film as Doc Holliday. In a performance that should have nabbed Kilmer at least an Academy Award nomination, he animates Holliday with one-liners and a classic world-weariness that only comes when death waits to pounce both from the inside and from every outside corner. Kilmer nails an attitude of supreme self-confidence despite keen awareness of a life wasted on all the wrong priorities, and demands to be the centre of attention as he turns Holliday into a less conflicted version of Earp, still fighting for what's right, but more for the adventure than the principle.

The supporting cast is astounding in its depth of established and future talent, with Robert Mitchum narrating, Charlton Heston making a late appearance as rancher Henry Hooker, and the likes of Joanna Pacula, Michael Rooker, Harry Carey, Jr., Billy Bob Thornton, Jason Priestley, Thomas Haden Church and Billy Zane ensuring that every character is earnestly portrayed.

The story may be familiar, but Tombstone gives Wyatt Earp respectful, complex and clear-headed treatment. The man finally comes to life, along with the diverse group of westerners who helped to make his legend.






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