Tuesday, July 16, 2013
Tombstone (1993), which dramatizes famed Western lawman Wyatt Earp's attempt to settle down until he's drawn into conflict with the notorious gang The Cowboys, had a troubled production. Writer Kevin Jarre was fired as director and replaced with George P. Cosmatos (although subsequent reports and interviews indicate star Kurt Russell may have been the actual director), the script was dramatically curtailed, entire scenes and subplots were eliminated, and filming ran behind schedule.
The difficult circumstances of the filming clearly had an impact on the final project. Running a little over two hours long, the movie feels longer than it really is. Characters come and go and are often forgotten about for long stretches, and it can be a bit taxing trying to keep track of everyone. One gets the impression the filmmakers were shooting for a grand epic and had to settle for an action movie in Western garb. Still, thanks to some stellar performances and handsome production design, Tombstone proves to be an engaging if frustrating picture.
That's the plot in a nutshell and a fraction of the cast. There's also Wyatt Earp's romance with an actress (Dana Delany), although he tries to resist her advances because he's already married to Mattie (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson), an opium addict. There's also Billy Bob Thorton as a boorish card dealer, Thomas Haden Church as a member of The Cowboys, Terry O'Quinn as Tombstone's mayor, Charlton Heston as a helpful rancher, Michael Rooker as a reformed member of the gang, and others. It gets pretty crowded, and some of the actors, Rooker and Billy Zane as a traveling actor in particular, feel as if most of their parts ended up on the cutting room floor.
The film's other chief problem is that the nominal climax - the Shootout at the O.K. Corral - occurs about half way through the film. The subsequent encounters between Earp and The Cowboys feel rushed and anti-climactic, with two redundant action montages showing Earp and his group on the hunt. The Cowboys, despite the presence of top-notch performers, lack a standout, charismatic leader the movie can build a final confrontation to. Curly Bill and Ringo are initially set up as the big, bad heavies, but their final fates are somewhat disappointing and brushed off. In short, The Cowboys never feel they're as much of a threat to Earp and Doc as they should be.
What is good about Tombstone and what makes the movie very good are the performances; there isn't a weak link in the entire cast. Russell is the stalwart man of honor and decency who can't help but get involved despite his efforts not to (we first see him whipping a man for doing likewise to a horse). The best performance without a doubt is Kilmer. The relationship between Earp and Holliday is without a doubt the heart of the film, and there is poignancy when Holliday says he rides with the lawman because Earp is one of the only true friends he has. Holliday, despite his terminal condition, is sharper, faster, and more daring than anyone else in the room, and it's a hoot watching him take down, verbally or otherwise, anyone who thinks they can challenge him.
Frankly, it's the character moments that make Tombstone stand out. Yes, there are plenty of shootouts and violent confrontations, but the most satisfying element is watching how these people push and test each other under pressure. If nothing else, the movie proves to be one of the greatest ensemble of mustaches ever committed to film.