Tombstone was the first shot fired in a double-barreled blast of Wyatt Earp movies in 1993 and 1994. While Lawrence Kasdan and Kevin Costner’s Wyatt Earp was too long, plodding and ponderous, George Pan Cosmato’s entry in the O.K. Corral sweepstakes was violent and operatic, a noisy revenge tale told at a fever pitch. It was also the better movie, even if its fidelity to the facts of Earp’s life was less than letter perfect. Movie audiences have never been that picky about historical accuracy in their westerns. Young Guns did all right and it was hardly a scholarly work on the life of Billy the Kid.
Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell) has come to the Arizona silver boom town of Tombstone to find his fortune with his brothers, Virgil (Sam Elliott) and Morgan (Bill Paxton), and their wives. He believes he’s left behind his days as a lawman in Dodge City, Kansas, and plans for a peaceful and hopefully lucrative retirement. Even when approached by the town’s mayor (Lost’s Terry O’Quinn) about a law enforcement job, Wyatt turns it down flat. They are soon joined by Wyatt’s friend, the tubercular ex-dentist turned gambler and gunfighter, Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer).
Wyatt is also smitten by the arrival of actress Josie Marcus (Dana Delaney), much to the dismay of his common law wife, Mattie (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson), who’s unsuccessfully battling an addiction to Laudanum, an opium-based pain reliever.
Initially, retirement seems like a good idea, as the lifespan of peace officers in Tombstone is not that encouraging with the town controlled by a ruthless gang called the Cowboys, led by William “Curly Bill” Brocious (Powers Booth) and his literate, psychotic henchman with a thousand-yard stare, Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn). They have the county sheriff, Johnny Behan (Jon Tenney) in their pocket. But a tragic mishap leaves the position of town marshal vacant and, rather than see the Cowboys run rampant, Virgil steps in with Morgan as his deputy, much to Wyatt’s dismay.
Virgil’s position leads the Earps into direct conflict with the Cowboys, which ultimately results in the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral, ending in the death of three cowboys. The gang has the poor judgment to take revenge on Wyatt’s family, turning the lawman into a virtual one-man killing machine on a legally sanctioned quest for revenge.
Students of the real Wyatt Earp’s life will recognized that a lot of that is pure bunkum, but so have been most of the cinematic treatments of the famous lawman’s time in Tombstone. This movie is no more or less inaccurate than most of them and it’s a hell of a lot more entertaining than many of them.
Even if I hadn’t said so at the top, you probably would have guessed from my description that Tombstone plays out at an amped-up, Spinal Tap level of intensity, everything at eleven. When Kurt Russell bellows, “You called down the thunder!” it fits perfectly within the tone of the movie, even if it would be ridiculously over-the-top in almost any other film. In fact, the dialog and general posture of the movie is so saturated with testosterone, I was initially surprised to learn that John Millius had nothing to do with it. However, screenwriter Keith Jarre also penned Rambo: First Blood Part II, so he seems to come by this sort of machismo honestly.
Not everything works perfectly, most notably the films ham handed attempt to draw parallels between the Cowboys and modern inner city street gangs. And except for Ike Clanton (Stephen Lang), the dimwitted Cowboy with feet of clay, most of the other bad guys are interchangeable targets for Wyatt Earp to gun down after the plot shifts into high gear.
Tombstone’s fans have always singled out Val Kilmer’s performance as Doc Holliday for praise and deservedly so, as this movie certainly represents the high-water mark of the actor’s career so far. His Holliday is a courtly but debauched Southern gentleman with a wry, fatalistic outlook at the world. Sometimes it seems his loyalty to Wyatt Earp is his sole redeeming quality, born of a desperate need to connect with something decent in what’s left of his life.
Tombstone may not rank with the great westerns of John Ford, Sam Peckinpah or even the post-modern horse operas of Clint Eastwood, but as pure entertainment meant to be played at maximum volume, it certainly sits high in the saddle.
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