directed by George P. Cosmatos
(Buena Vista, 1993)

Westerns don't do a lot for me. (Perhaps I was emotionally scarred in my childhood by hearing that damn kid shrill "Shane!" one too many times.) But there's one western that you'll find me watching over and over again: Tombstone.

The story of Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan Earp (there were more Earps, really, but the movie trimmed the family to three) and Doc Holliday in the mining boomtown of Tombstone comes to gritty life in this movie, which overshadowed 1994's Wyatt Earp, starring Kevin Costner in the title role. Here we have Kurt Russell as Wyatt, powerful in his intensity, arriving with his brothers Virgil (Sam Elliott) and Morgan (Bill Paxton) and their wives in Tombstone, where they plan to retire from law enforcement, open a business and settle down in peace.

But peace doesn't cooperate. Tombstone is already a base of operations for the Cowboys, a band of red-sashed thieves and thugs with no regard for the law. Wyatt resists all pleas to become a lawman again, but his stern elder brother Virgil takes a nobler stand, with Morgan as a green but eager deputy. Wyatt, out of family loyalty if nothing else, relucatantly throws his hand in as well, joined by longtime friend Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer), who is dying of tuberculosis but has an insatiable greed for drinking, gambling and fighting.

The Earps are greatly outnumbered by the Cowboys, led by the likes of Curly Bill Brocious (Powers Boothe), Ike Clanton (Stephen Lang) and the half-crazed Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn). But these are fearless men who don't back down, and the infamous showdown at the OK Corral is brilliantly staged. So, too, is the sequence of events which follow: the Cowboys' revenge, and Wyatt Earp's righteous fury and retribution.

All three Earps are well cast, with Russell, Elliott and Paxton all turning in excellent performances. The three are joined with an equally strong cast, making the film all the better.

Biehn provides us with a particularly compelling Ringo -- he's not quite sane, and he's twice as dangerous for it. His questionable sanity is more than matched by Kilmer's Doc Holliday, however -- Holliday knew he was dying, and Kilmer perfectly captured the devil-may-care fearlessness of a man with nothing to lose. His unflagging loyalty to Wyatt, too, is touching to see.

Dana Delany is stunning as actress Josephine Marcus, who sweeps boldly into Wyatt's life. Other performances of note include Jason Priestly as the gentle Billy Breckinridge, a good man on the wrong side; Joe Tenney as the smarmy Sheriff John Behan; Harry Carey Jr. as the well-meaning Marshall Fred White; and Billy Bob Thornton as the bullying Johnny Tyler. Robert Mitchum is an effective narrator at the movie's beginning and end (although his last line is a waste; who cares if a movie actor cried at Wyatt's funeral?) and Charlton Heston obviously relishes his role as the gun-toting rancher Henry Hooker.

Don't like westerns? Give this one a try anyway, you might be surprised.

[ by Tom Knapp ]
Rambles: 9 March 2002

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