The last time director Lawrence Kasdan and Kevin Costner teamed up for a western it was 1985’s sunny and retro Silverado, a movie that was as much an homage to the traditional western as anything else. Their second teaming, Wyatt Earp, is a complete 180-degree turn from the first. Billed as a serious examination of the life of the famous and controversial lawman, Wyatt Earp takes a long time to win our hearts and then overstays its welcome.
The early part of the film, examining Earp’s early life, is episodic and disjointed. I never sensed a narrative thread connecting these scenes to each other or to the rest of the film. We see young Wyatt and his family, under the stern but loving father, Nicholas (Gene Hackman), who preaches the importance of loyalty to family. Wyatt grows up moves away, courts a girl, marries and then loses her and their baby to typhoid. He gets drunk, burns down their house, stays drunk, steals horses and gets thrown in jail. At his father’s urging, he heads west to avoid the inevitable hanging.
This first part is about 45 minutes of a three-hour movie. Now we join Wyatt as a buffalo hunter as he meets the Masterson brothers, Ed (Bill Pullman) and Bat (Tom Sizemore) and then heads on to Wichita and his eventual career as a lawman. It’s only at this point that Wyatt Earp comes alive. Had the film found a way to start here, it would have been a far superior movie. From this time forward, Wyatt Earp still covers parts of the man’s life that other films have never touched upon, events that have far more bearing on the life of the man who became a Western legend.
After sort of backing into a job as a deputy marshal in Wichita, Wyatt is recruited to be a deputy marshal in the booming but lawless cattle town of Dodge City. Bringing his brothers along and later recruiting the Mastersons, quickly restores order, although his methods are often a little rough for the tastes of the townspeople. Wyatt loses that job and goes on to chase fugitives for the railroad. That brings him into contact with the tubercular dentist turned gambler and gunslinger, John “Doc” Holliday (Dennis Quaid). When his replacement in Dodge City, Ed Masterson, is killed and the town is near anarchy again, Wyatt is summoned back to his old job.
After that, tired of being a lawman, he elects to uproot his family and head for the booming silver town of Tombstone, Arizona. There, the Earp family’s many business ventures don’t put a lot of money in their pockets, so the three brothers, Wyatt, Virgil (Michael Madsen) and Morgan (Linden Ashby), are drawn back into working as deputy marshals to pay the bills. This brings them into conflict with the county sheriff, Johnny Behan (Mark Harmon) and the lawless cowboys with which he has allied himself.
At this point, Wyatt Earp starts to cover familiar ground if you have seen one of the many films that deal with the events leading up to and following the now-legendary gunfight at the OK Corral.
Where this film really stands apart from other treatments of the Earp legend is in its emphasis on the women behind the main players. This is still a traditional western in that the men doing all the fighting while the women sit at home hoping their man returns alive, but at least here the women get to speak their mind before and after that happens. Wyatt’s common law wife, Mattie Blaylock (Mare Winningham) is clingy and bitter that Wyatt doesn’t return her devotion. Virgil’s wife, Allie (Catherine O’Hara), is one of the few people to stand toe-to-toe with Wyatt on her own terms, frustrated that her husband can’t seem to break away from his brother so they can live their own life.
Despite its epic scope and attention to the historical details, as a biography and a film, Wyatt Earp fails to engage the audience’s interest or understanding, mostly because the man at the center of the film comes across as so unlikeable. It’s hard to imagine this cold, distant man inspiring much loyalty in his friends or family. On the other hand, Wyatt Earp is worth checking out if only for Dennis Quaid’s performance as Doc Holliday. Losing nearly 40 pounds to play the role, Quaid disappears into the character until the familiar face of the actor is virtually unrecognizable under the gunslinger’s sunken cheeks.
Since Quaid doesn’t appear until Wyatt Earp is nearly half-over, the film is probably a better candidate for a DVD rental than a purchase.