If you’re going to ask an audience to sit through a three-hour, nine-minute rendition of an oft-told story, it would help to have a strong point of view on your material and an urgent reason to relate it. Such is not the case with “Wyatt Earp,” a handsome, grandiose gentleman’s Western that tries to tell evenhandedly more about the famous Tombstone lawman than has ever before been put onscreen.
Sticking closer to the known facts than other versions just as it mounts the Earp saga in terms more epic than heretofore seen, Lawrence Kasdan’s expansive and obviously expensive second oater has more than enough interesting characters and dramatic scenes, as well as Kevin Costner back in the Old West, to draw audiences both domestically and overseas.
But undue length poses a drawback, as do subject’s familiarity and lack of sustained excitement, resulting in brawny but less than brilliant B.O. prospects.
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Tale of the laconic, steel-nerved marshal who prevailed in the legendary gunfight at the O.K. Corral has always been a screen natural. Its greatest, most mythic telling is found in John Ford’s “My Darling Clementine,” although contemporary viewers will draw primary comparison to the messy but brassilyentertaining “Tombstone,” which came out, and performed surprisingly well, just six months ago.
By contrast with the Disney version, this pic is serious and self-important. By spanning many years in the lives of Earp and his family, the filmmakers are clearly making statements about the cost of maintaining ideals, the inevitability of loss and the wages of enforcing the law. But they do so in so discursive a manner as to take much of the bite out of their commentary.
Everything here that could be expressed in shorthand instead is elaborated on , and everything that could be implied is underlined, especially by the bombastic, faux-ennobling score.
Opening reels, set on the Earp family farm, are designed to establish the clan’s patriarchal nature and dedication to the precepts of justice and family. “Nothing counts as much as blood,” intones the boys’ lawyer father (Gene Hackman). “The rest are strangers.”
On an initial trek west, Wyatt loses his lunch after witnessing his first deadly shootout, and returns to the Midwest, where, as dramatized at great length, he marries, only to lose his pregnant young wife to typhoid.
Wyatt (Costner) instantly goes into a drunken, criminal downward spin, and the man’s early loss is heavily credited by Kasdan as having been responsible for Wyatt’s harsh, unrelenting personality.
With his father’s help, he grad-ually pulls himself out of his stupor, becomes a buffalo hunter (scenes of stampeding beasts inevitably recall “Dances With Wolves”) and eventually lands in Wichita, where he almost inadvertently becomes a lawman.
From here on, pic begins treading on somewhat more familiar territory, as Bat and Ed Masterson enter the story, followed by Doc Holliday (Dennis Quaid), the gunslinging dentist and “sporting man” who forms an unlikely partnership with the brothers Earp in trying to tame the boom towns Dodge City and Tombstone.
Inevitably, the road leads to the O.K. Corral. The showdown between the Earps and Holliday on one side and the Clantons and McLaurys on the other is staged with a brutal and realistic quickness.
What fills out the time before and after is a detailed portrait of the corrupt politics of the Arizona Territory, circa 1881, and a none-too-flattering picture of Earp family life, especially where the women were concerned.
Kasdan misses out by not emphasizing that the woman who eventually became Wyatt’s third and lasting wife, Josie Marcus (Joanna Going), had actually been the fiancee of the sheriff who became his arch-enemy, Johnny Behan (Mark Harmon).
But Behan’s duplicitous dealings and anxiousness to put the Earps on trial for murder after the gunfight are nicely sketched. So are the strained relations of the Earp men and their assorted women — some of them ex-whores and all of them basically doing whatever Wyatt says — which makes for an ironic commentary on a group that places family ties above all.
“You’re a cold man, Wyatt Earp,” charges one of his sisters-in-law, and pic has to live with the fact that the figure at its center is, indeed, an icy, implacable fellow.
It’s a role to which Costner is well suited, as he keeps his distance from most of the characters and keeps his word about upholding laws. All that’s missing is the tightly coiled quality beneath the surface that he showed so impressively in “A Perfect World.”
Standout performance, in what is invariably a showy role, comes from Quaid as Doc Holliday. Looking elegantly gaunt from having shed more than 40 pounds for the part, Quaid delivers a droll, sardonic, poised reading of this charismatic, equivocal character, and pic jumps to life whenever he’s around.
Cast is enormous, and the sheer size of many scenes is startling. Clearly, no expense has been spared in this attempt to make the ultimate Wyatt Earp film, and Ida Random’s production design — which encompasses dozens of distinctive sets, Colleen Atwood’s countless costumes and Owen Roizman’s expansive cinematography — all help make this a physically imposing Hollywood production.
Unfortunately, James Newton Howard’s score thunders away almost throughout, giving the film an extra layer of pretentiousness and heaviness that it scarcely needs.
To their credit, Kasdan, Costner and the other key contributors have sought to present a slightly more ambiguous reading of one of the West’s key heroes than the public has come to expect. But inasmuch as it posits itself as a “dark” Western, it also inadvertently demonstrates just how brilliant “Unforgiven” really was.