Tuesday, July 16, 2013


If there's one thing I've learned from a lifetime of watching movies, it's this: famed lawman, gunfighters, soldiers, warriors, cops, detectives, and other action hero types are never more likely to draw trouble than when they try to retire to a nice, quiet life with their families. They might as well be sending personal invitations to every bad guy in the universe to come and mess with them. My advice to any action heroes out there would be to neglect your families; they may resent you for it, but a happy family means a doomed family (at least in the movies).

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.

Following his retirement as a lawman in Dodge City, Wyatt Earp (Russell) travels to Tombstone, Ariz. with his brothers Virgil (Sam Elliot) and Morgan (Bill Paxton) to settle down and become a businessman. It's in Tombstone he's reunited with his old friend "Doc" Holliday (Val Kilmer), a gunfighter with a quick wit and faster gun who's dying of tuberculosis. The Earps quickly start making money, but Tombstone is under the control of The Cowboys, a ruthless gang we first see when they massacre a Mexican wedding party. The gang's members include leader Curly Bill Brocius (Powers Boothe), Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn), and Ike Clanton (Stephen Lang). Eventually, Morgan and Virgil, feeling so guilty at the hardship inflicted on the townsfolk, become marshals, and before too long, Wyatt himself is putting the badge back on for an all-out war with The Cowboys, including a shootout at the O.K. Corral.

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.

The movie also depicts the myth making of Wyatt Earp. In their first scene, The Cowboys are warned by a Mexican priest that Death will come for on horseback, straight out of the book of Revelations. Later, Earp lets one of the outlaws go to spread the warning that he is Death and coming for them. When we first meet Earp, he is a man uncomfortable with his reputation and trying to return to an anonymous, private life. In fact, prior to the O.K. Corral, he says he's only shot one man, and it's the kind of deed that haunts a man. This normal man is lost when Earp marches into a gunfight with his brothers and Holliday and when he strides out into the open under a hail of bullets, emerging unscathed. In short, the first half of the movie is Earp the man; the second is Earp the legend.

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.

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