Wild Bill is an art Western that manages to shoot itself in both feet. Walter Hill’s third oater represents a case of diminishing returns in the genre for the director, after skillfully taking on several famous outlaw clans in The Long Riders and rather too reverentially approaching the legend of Geronimo years ago.
Although less flamboyant and showbizzy, this awkwardly structured look at one of the West’s most famous gunmen stands as an artistic companion piece to Robert Altman’s dud Buffalo Bill and the Indians in its preoccupation with myth and legend and its at least partial basis in a play [Thomas Babe’s 1978 Fathers and Sons, plus Pete Dexter’s novel Deadwood].
As impersonated with great physical conviction by Jeff Bridges, this Wild Bill is one ornery, sore-headed s.o.b. In the film’s weird initial 20 minutes, this rattlesnake cuts down a succession of men in an elongated montage that spans nine years up to 1876 and locations from Abilene to Cheyenne to New York City.
In Deadwood Gulch in the Dakota Territory, Bill resumes his old quasi-romance with Calamity Jane (Ellen Barkin), suffers an opium-induced crisis of conscience and faces a recurring challenge from green would-be assassin Jack McCall (David Arquette), who, it appears, may be Wild Bill’s son.
The druggy dreams and romantic pangs prompt a series of flashbacks done in parched, high-contrast black-and-white that further reveal Bill’s murderousness as well as his lost love for Jack’s mother, Susannah (Diane Lane). The problem is that these regrets have no seeming effect on the dubious hero’s character. Pic comes to a near dead-stop, in the final stretch, as Wild Bill, Calamity Jane and Jack’s band of killers sit around all night in a saloon while Jack decides whether or not to kill his nemesis.
Bridges acquits himself honorably, snarling meanly and attempting to search a soul that is void. Barkin is game but doesn’t really ring true as Calamity Jane, while Lane is one of the dreamiest visions to hit the territories since Claudia Cardinale in Once Upon a Time in the West.