A decent addition to the current cycle of screen and TV Westerns, “Tombstone” is a tough-talking but soft-hearted tale that is entertaining in a sprawling, old-fashioned manner. Hollywood Pictures won the race to be the first to offer a 1990s version of the oft-told adventures of legendary Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, as Lawrence Kasdan’s Warner Bros. release starring Kevin Costner won’t be ready until next summer. Unburdened by the somber, politically correct tone of a Western like “Geronimo,” this never-dull oater should do brisker B.O., particularly with younger viewers.
As written by Kevin Jarre, who was replaced as director early in the shoot by George P. Cosmatos, “Tombstone” is not so much a revisionist view of the Old West as a retelling of the famous story that blends drama, comedy, action and romance the way 1950s movies did. Story begins in 1879, when Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell), retired marshall of Dodge City, arrives in the lawless boomtown of Tombstone, Ariz., determined to settle down into domesticity with his wife (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson) and open a business with his brothers Virgil (Sam Elliott) and Morgan (Bill Paxton).
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But Earp is soon forced to drop his ideology of non-involvement, as the town is terrorized by a bunch of fearless, corrupt villains, headed by the McLaurys and Clantons. Like Clint Eastwood’s character in “Unforgiven,” Earp is depicted as a reluctant hero, a man who resists the use of violence as a means of establishing law and order until it becomes absolutely necessary. The high price of senseless violence thus becomes the powerful motif of the film’s last chapters, which re-create the famous 1881 O.K. Corral battle and its aftermath.
Earp is assisted by the unpredictable Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer), who’s portrayed as a boozy intellectual and womanizer dying of tuberculosis, yet fast on the draw. As it has in other films on the subject, the friendship between Earp and Holliday, the town’s most intriguing and mysterious figure, provides the story’s most poignant angle.
The most visibly modernist touch concerns the demythification of its heroes — unlike previous screen versions, pic focuses on Earp’s and Holliday’s darker, personal sides. A light feminist streak also runs through the female characters, especially Mattie, Earp’s drug-addicted wife, and Josephine (Dana Delany), a fun-loving actress for whom room service epitomizes the “good life.”
As in many other Westerns and period dramas, Jarre’s dialogue is often anachronistic, combining a campy contemporary edge with a more realistic dialect. Despite the lack of emotional center and narrative focus, his script contains enough subplots and colorful characters to enliven the film and ultimately make it a fun, if not totally engaging, experience.
Resisting the temptation of creating a reverential tribute to John Ford, whose version of the story was the classic “My Darling Clementine,” director Cosmatos instead opts for the more operatic, gritty style of Sergio Leone, particularly in his cutting and use of mega-closeups during the legendary gunfight at O.K. Corral. After a weak initial half-hour, Cosmatos judiciously finds the most audience-appealing dimensions of his tale.
Ultimately, pic’s chief virtue is that its handsome actors show a gleaming pleasure in being cast against type. Russell brings a measure of authority and sensitivity to Wyatt Earp, a man tormented by family problems and conflicting values. But it’s Kilmer who delivers the standout performance, giving fresh shadings to the lethal but humorous Doc Holliday. Delany as the romantic performer, Elliott as Earp’s stoic brother and Michael Biehn as Johnny Ringo also have impressive moments.
Excepting Bruce Broughton’s bombastic music, production values are accomplished. Filmed on location around Tucson, where the story’s major incidents occurred, “Tombstone” boasts the visuals of an epic due to William A. Fraker’s luminous widescreen lensing.
Though lacking the star magnetism that Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas brought to John Sturges’ 1957 “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral,” film is filled with just as many tense action sequences. Moreover, Robert Mitchum’s laconic narration, which frames the story, and the presence of such Western vets as Charlton Heston, Harry Carey Jr. and Pedro Armendariz Jr. add credible continuity to the film, another in the grand Western tradition that has seen many ups and downs but is still the most unique American genre.