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Tombstone Review

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by Chris McEneany Apr 28, 2010

    Tombstone Review

    “Why, it's the drunk pianist. You're so drunk you cain't hit nuthin'. In fact, you're probably seein' double!”

    “I have two guns ... one for each o' yuh!”

    What was it with Costner back in the 90's? He vied for supremacy of Sherwood Forest when his mulletted Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves went hood-to-hood with Patrick Bergin's arguably better interpretation of the foliage-loving hero the same year. And then he produced his own lavish and wonderfully authentic take on the American frontier myth of the most celebrated Western marshal of them all, Wyatt Earp, just around the same time that MGM were saddling-up to ride with Kurt Russell's more vigorous telling of the same tale in Tombstone. Now, whether or not you prefer his take on the swashbuckling woodland outlaw to Bergin's is a matter of taste, but there can really be no denying that it was Russell's mighty moustachioed law enforcer who rode to victory in the Wyatt Earp sweepstakes. Defiantly old fashioned in nature, this sweeping, full-blooded oater wasn't out for the prize of the most historically accurate depiction - Costner's, which actually came out later and played to half empty screens whilst the Tombstone laserdisc sold out almost immediately - scooped that one, without a doubt. It just wanted to entertain in the style that had made the genre so popular and so perennial since the 1930's. Costner, still in a reverie about his commendably revisionist and Oscar-laden Dances With Wolves from a couple of years earlier, was bogged down with period detail and authenticity and, if his version had been the only one on the circuit, then it would have been justifiably lauded. But when it raced alongside the super-stallion that George P. Cosmatos had barely broken-in, it was pulled-up saddle-sore and lamentably lame in comparison. Whilst both films were long and big on atmosphere, Tombstone never felt slow or turgid - which, when held up against the streamlined and action-packed Russell locomotive, Lawrence Kasdan's Wyatt Earp certainly did.

    But enough of the spur-jangling smackdown. Both films were made for the right reasons and we should be thankful that each took their own perspective and managed to tell the same story very, very differently. So let's get down to business and deal ourselves in to this ribald and chaotic tale of dangerous Cowboys and of the even more dangerous lawmen who swore to take them down.

    “You gonna do something ... or just stand there and bleed?”

    If the Coen Brothers' magnificent film Miller's Crossing was as much about hats as it was the unfolding mob-land drama, then Tombstone is as much about moustaches as it is about rival clans competing for territory and respect. Practically everybody sports a 'tache of some description - a spindly, rakish wisp for the erstwhile Earps' loyal lieutenant Doc Holliday, played by Val Kilmer, impressive furry handlebars for both Kurt Russel's Wyatt and Bill Paxton's Morgan, and an enormous walrus rug for the always-awesome Sam Elliott. The amount of screen eaten up by these resplendent facial forests must be something of a record for follicles that even Wolverine and The Wolfman couldn't match. Meeting up again after their adventures in Dodge City, the famous Earp clan, replete with a trio of wives, seek fortune in the up-and-coming frontier mining town of Tombstone, Arizona. Ever the entrepreneur, Wyatt immediately sets about putting them in business and, ignoring the local mayor's pleas for him to become the law in this reckless land, almost inevitably courts trouble with the marauding gangs of outlaws, who call themselves Cowboys and identify themselves with a trademark red sash. Against his better judgement, Wyatt is forced to face up to his destiny and, with his brothers-in-arms and their old friend Doc, wades triumphantly into the mythology of the Old West as he sets about cleaning up the town. Women stall things along the way - as they are prone to do - and the arrival of a gorgeous and headstrong actress called Josephine (the luscious Dana Delaney) makes some of Wyatt's decisions less than noble, but this is a hard, brutal and immensely entertaining version of an oft-told tale that, first and foremost, is a story of pride, honour and testosterone. And whiskers.

    “I never saw a rich man who didn't have a guilty conscience.”

    “Well I already got a guilty conscience. Might as well have the money too.”

    The cast is literally to die for, isn't it? Honestly, you just gape when you look at the line-up, don't you? Although topped by the resplendently lantern-jawed Russell, we have Hollywood's most perfect cowboy of all, the gravel-tonsilled Sam Elliott and the iconic Bill Paxton as the badged-up good guys, Virgil and Morgan Earp, of course. But on the bad team, we have 80's stalwart Powers Boothe as the renegade chieftain Curly Bill Brocius, and his squad of red-sash-wearing henchmen, including Michael Rooker, Thomas Hayden Church, Stephen Lang (so good as Avatar's formidable human villain, even if he is lumped with the galaxy's worst surname, and the guy who literally stole the show in Public Enemies) as the slime-ball Ike Clanton and, in a deliriously vicious turn, Michael Biehn as the extraordinarily literate and tempestuous Johnny Ringo. And lending his gravitas to the film is the immortalised Charlton Heston in what amounts to, in all honesty, a pretty pointless cameo that does little more than merely lend some critical stature to the theatrical version of the film. His biggest moments were cut from the first release and still haven't been reinstated for this Blu-ray. Even having Robert Mitchum deliver a Chandler-esque opening/closing narration seems like a bit of overkill. But this is the lure of the Western. Everyone in Hollywood, it seems, must serve some time in the saddle ... and even those who thought they'd hung up their spurs a long time ago can be recalled for prairie duty at the twilight of their careers.

    “I'm yo' Huckleberry.”

    But the big attraction, once word had got out, was none of the above, but rather someone who has always seemed on the verge of stardom, yet has always stumbled before attaining it, despite some heavy-duty, high-wattage parts like the Caped Crusader in Batman Forever and Jim Morrison in The Doors. Val Kilmer doesn't so much nail the role of Doc Holliday, as spear it to the floor. There is definitely something about the character that brings out the best in a performer. Look at Victor Mature in Ford's My Darling Clementine, Kirk Douglas in Sturges' Gunfight At The OK Corral, and even Dennis Quaid who puts in a sterling and nuanced performance in the Kasdan rival. But, of them all, perhaps the most memorable is Kilmer's portrayal. Sozzled, sick and shrunken, his jaundiced cardsharp is as quick with his put-downs as he is with guns. Sardonic, loquacious and effortlessly amiable, he may cough and gasp, shudder and wheeze, Kilmer's eyes looking genuinely rheumy and his lungs painfully rattling, but you'd want him by your side in any situation, even if you've got the redoubtable Sam Elliott over on the other one. With such a flippant, semi-camp demeanour and a garrulous theatricality about him, Kilmer's Doc is almost the Western equivalent of Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow, saucy buccaneer perhaps land-locked in the New World and finally succumbing to all that rum.

    Biehn is also spellbinding. Whereas the reliable Boothe had begun to make villainous roles something of a speciality, especially villainous roles as downright likeable as the free-wheeling Curly Bill, Biehn was still the hero from The Terminator and Aliens. So what was he doing hissing and glaring like a mad dog in this for? Well, I'll tell you what he's doing, folks. He's reminding us of the legacy of the Spaghetti Westerns. Out of all the characters in this packed and rowdy house, his Johnny Ringo stands out. Everybody else is quintessentially of the traditional genre stock, but Biehn imbues Johnny with the volatile unpredictability of Klaus Kinski. Of Giancarlo Maria Volante. Of Kill And Pray's Mark Damon. He brings with him to the part a streak of the truest and meanest psychosis, painfully articulate but as dangerous as a bard crossed with a rattlesnake. Even the oaters directed by Clint Eastwood, which are arguably the darkest that ever came out of Hollywood, never toyed with a character this. “He has a great big hole right in the middle of him,” says Doc, who instinctively understands the demented mechanics and warped intelligence that govern Ringo ... because he has the same curse residing within him also but is, thankfully, too ill with tuberculosis to succumb to its madness. “He can never kill enough, or steal enough, or inflict enough pain to ever fill it.” Biehn exhibited a more cartoonic mania as the decompression-paranoid SEAL in Cameron's The Abyss, but this was possibly his greatest role.

    “You die first, get it? Your friends might get me in a rush, but not before I make your head into a canoe, you understand me?”

    The film is positively littered with familiar faces, which has become something of a staple of modern-made Westerns, from Young Guns, Silverado and Unforgiven to The Quick And The Dead, 3.10 To Yuma and Appaloosa. Jason Priestly prances about beneath some obviously glued-on facial hair as weaselly hanger-on. Billy Zane's Fabian cavorts with theatrical relish - which is appropriate considering that he is playing a touring stage actor - from beneath an obviously glued-on wig of rolling curls. Billy Bob Thornton gets a couple of clouts from Wyatt that quiver his glued-on (just joking) jowls as the big-mouthed, oafish faro dealer. Terry O' Quinn (The Stepfather/Young Guns) crops up as the muttering mayor on the sidelines of the range-war. Gladiator's Quintus, Tomas Arana, gets a belly full of buckshot. And there's even Sly Stallone's brother, Frank, in there somewhere, too.

    The action is tremendous, mixing the grit and unpredictable reality of the gun-toting mayhem of the period with the clearly embellished Hollywood standards. For example, the OK Corral sequence is shot roughly as history pertains it - bullets miss at close-range and some people take multiple hits before they go down - but later battles reveal that the good guys, especially, are dead-shots and demolish all they aim at even when charging on horseback. But, cleverly taking the legendary gunfight as its centre-piece and not as the final culmination of events, the film is allowed to open up the story to take in the veritable crusade that the Earps go on in relentless determination to wipe the Cowboys out. The other film chose to go epic and paint an almost scholarly biopic of the fabled Marshal, and the previous entries had all quit and gone home after the main shoot-out. Tombstone, then, is like the junk food version of the tale. We've really enjoyed it so far, really got a taste for it ... so why should it have to end there? Here you are, Big Russ says, have another cheeseburger ... oh, and here's some more ketchup. A lot more ketchup. Tombstone more than delivers the goods in the violence stakes. The opening bloodbath is a definite homage to the sadistic massacre that Henry Fonda (a one-time Wyatt Earp, himself) and his gang of duster-coated varmints perpetrate at the start of Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West - a deliberately OTT sequence that sees a wedding party, including the priest, remorselessly slain by Curly and his gang of Cowboys. It sets the scene well, even if it is incredibly clichéd and doesn't exactly fit in with the rest of the story which paints them out to be more akin to a mob of party-loving Gremlins than sadistic mercenaries. A rifle-butt smashed in a rider's face, an opium-addled Cowboy mistakenly toking on the end of a gun-barrel and the shaving-foam on a bad guy's face erupting in a welter of blood are just some of the grim delights that Tombstone 's celebrated montage of retribution brings. Plus, there's some great shotgun action that is apt to have you ducking behind the settee!

    As I've implied, you might expect the main gunfight to be the highpoint of the saga, but Cosmatos, Russell and Co. conspire to top this in truly bravura fashion with the ensuing tit-for-tat night of Cowboy vengeance for the loss of their buddies. Set against a truly demonic storm of raging thunder and satanic forks of lightning, the awful repercussion of the Earps' crusade is given an utterly superb sequence of all-out suspense and dread. Unnervingly depicted amidst such a vast and nightmarish squall, the film ensures that the edge of the seat is where you remain even after the dust has settled at the OK Corral. The image turning from pitch to heaven-split silver for disturbing flashes whilst Virgil takes a walk on the wild side of town and macabre shadows flutter past windows herald a chilling set-piece that rams home the desperate stakes such a “sworn-in” gamble has led to.

    But there are still some ingredients that don't sit quite right in this potent stew. The romance is more than slightly hackneyed. This isn't helped by a screenplay, from the film's ousted director Kevin Jarre, that lurches Wyatt into liaisons with Delaney's highly arousing Josephine in rather too clumsy a fashion. In fact, all the women in the film, with the exception of Doc's squeeze, Kate, played bewitchingly by Joanna Pacula, threaten to derail the drama. And no real effort is made to involve them in the conflict as anything other than frightened spectators. There is also a concerted effort made to establish a Biblical vein of evil coursing through Tombstone and all those who contrive to end up there, and the corruption of the soul that the boom-town's own intoxicating aura so glibly offers. The Cowboys are clearly demons and the Earps and Doc are avenging angels. When Wyatt wonders why Ringo does the things he does, Doc simply says, “For revenge”. “For what?” asks Wyatt, and Doc smoothly replies, “For being born.” You almost wish that another film could be made of Johnny Ringo's rise to infamy. Fabian's dramatisation of Faust is telling, of course, but the film tries a little too hard to manufacture the notion that Wyatt, himself, is the one who is selling his soul. Somehow by showing his indecision and emotional floundering, his feelings torn between two women and his devotions walking the tightrope between greed and the greater good, the full scope of his dilemma becomes clouded. Russell carries on valiantly, but we are really only concerned when he is out cracking skulls and putting holes in people. The film suffers from the loss of a fair chunk of footage, too. This has the effect of both speeding up the proceedings and noticeably breaking the flow at times, too. The final act, as a consequence, can't help but feel rushed as various characters drop out and events spiral into virtually one breathless stampede of death and triumph. But some threads are just left dangling - such as young Billy's (Priestley) infatuation with Zane's board-treading thespian, Wyatt's wife's addiction to laudanum and the dissolution of their relationship, the parting between Doc and Kate and the last moments of Rooker's turncoat McMasters. All things that are rectified, at least partially, in the Director's Cut.

    “If they were my brothers, I'd want revenge, too.”

    “Oh, make no mistake. It's not revenge he's after. It's a reckoning.”

    Well, there's been great speculation surrounding this film since the news broke that it may well have been the bull-in-a-china-shop Kurt Russell calling the shots and not, in fact, George Pan Cosmatos who, it is alleged, was only something of a ghost director on the production. It is no revelation that the film's original director, Kevin Jarre (who wrote Glory and co-wrote Rambo II for Cosmatos, alongside James Cameron) left the production and Cosmatos took over with only a day's notice. Now, although nothing is properly confirmed regarding just who was behind the camera, this assertion does seem to make sense considering just how much the film has always felt like it was Russell's baby from start to finish. Whereas if you watch the star making a meal of things in Carpenter's two Escapes, The Thing and Big Trouble In Little China, as well as other productions like Tango & Cash, for instance, you really get the impression that he wants to own this picture. Personally, I can imagine a lot of input behind the camera from the star. This may have all the credentials of Cosmatos' type of thing - it's a man's film, it's unsubtle, it's wild and raucous and thrives on the thrilling execution of violence like his Rambo and Cobra outings - but surely it is down to Russell that it is also about the male bonding ethic, the star turns, and the dark fragility of legend as much as it is about the intense rivalry and hostility that is generated in such a profoundly macho environment. Either way, and whichever version of the film you see, it works brilliantly.

    Tombstone also benefits from a thunderous and deliciously ominous score from Bruce Broughton. Broughton had previously scored Lawrence Kasden's Silverado - another great modern-made Western fashioned after the Silver Age of the genre (BD reviewed separately) in that it is vibrant and tongue-in-cheek and is almost the Western for people who have never seen a Western before - and he has often referred to his music for Tombstone as being its “bad boy cousin”, the dark flip-side of the expansive fun he had with the previous horse-opera. Indeed it is a rumbling discourse of anvil-clanging immediacy and raw, anger-tinged psychological obsession. The opening wedding sequence is deliciously inter-cut with the hoofs-pounding approach of the baddies, the breezy mariachi playing violently broken-up by harsh, rib-pummelling bursts of Broughton's menacing Cowboy motif. The terrific build-up to the famed gunfight is made all the more urgent and intensely dangerous by the momentous shift in musical tone, and the brief flurries of what is actually quite a fragmented main theme - we never actually hear it in full until the end, unlike Silverado, which in full honour of genre tradition opens with it - are justly welcome and beautifully reminiscent of the more seasoned Americana signature-cues from the likes of Elmer Bernstein, Dmitri Tiomkin and Jerome Moross. But where his Silverado score is light, ebullient and joyous, Tombstone is rich with foreboding, and far more character-driven, like the film it supports.

    “Look, darling, Johnny Ringo. The deadliest pistoleer since Wild Bill, they say. What do you think, darling? Should I hate him?”

    The film also defies convention in that the most rewarding conflict within it is actually that that exists between the supporting characters of Doc and Ringo. Their early face-off in the Oriental Saloon which showcases Biehn's pistol-twirling finesse and Kilmer's retaliatory tin-cup twirling (neatly parodying a similar scene in Jaws between Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw) is a classic, and their subsequent encounters, whether verbally sparring in foreign lingo or actually gunning for one another mark a steady climb in audience expectation, nudging the grudge into deeper territory than that existing between Wyatt and Curly Bill, or between Virgil and Ike. Both Doc and Ringo are educated and amoral, it is just the extremes to which either will go that separates them. Kilmer's dandified Southern drawl completely swamps anybody else engaged in discourse with him, but Biehn's sheer zeal and barely suppressed homicidal tendencies make a perfect foil to his inebriated brio. Miraculously, you sympathise with Johnny as well as with Doc - and they're both liars, cheats and murderers! So that takes some doing.

    “I see a red sash, I kill the man wearing it. So run, you cur! Run! And tell all the other curs the law is comin' . You tell 'em I'm coming. And Hell's comin' with me, you hear? HELL'S COMIN' WITH ME!!!!

    Sam Elliott's sudden flurries of temper as Virgil loses his cool with Ike Clanton are quite inspiring. All of the cast seem authentic, even the flamboyant Zane, but Elliott, as I've said many, many times over, doesn't just walk the walk, he brutally stomps down on it and squashes it flat. Truly this man was born out of his time. Look at the shivery-tense moment just before the guns start blazing at the OK Corral when Virgil stoops and extends a placatory arm, albeit one that is wielding a big stick towards the jittery opposition. He exudes both an absolute instinct-honed control over his own reactions and a totally realistic edge of credible fear about what is surely about to go down. Paxton, as dependable as ever, combines devotion to family and to duty with believable shock as the events play out, quivering with pain and the trauma at the effects of real killings and, later on, stripping all the cliché from a blood-soaked observation on mortality. Kilmer seems to fire one round too many from that “street howitzer” but he fast becomes the supreme gunslinger despite the sickly sweat caking his ravaged body - and the sly wink he gives to Hayden Church 's Billy Clanton that kicks the whole thing off is a splendidly cavalier touch. And Russell ... well, he's just Russell - stoic, resilient and wrathful. What makes his characterisation work so well is his insistence on trying to avoid confrontations in the first place. What you have to remember is that the Earps were the good guys simply by virtue of circumstance and timing, and Russell's interpretation totally endorses this. He wants to make money and live the good life in some luxury. He's not above breaking rules, himself, and the odd bit of bullying. He'll fight to protect his family and he'll fight to get what he wants, but if he can skirt around such “complications” as the aggravating Clantons and their cohorts (“Come on, Virgil, carrying a gun is just a misdemeanor!”) he will do his utmost to make it so. But, in the time honoured style of such principled men, if you cross the line then you'll wake the devil ... and when Wyatt Earp goes on the warpath, you better realise that hell's coming with him!

    Intensely drawn and impeccably mounted, Tombstone revels in the grim side of the popular legend. Wyatt is obviously a deeply conflicted man, struggling to make sense of the circumstances that surround him and, rightly or wrongly, history has chosen to sanctify the actions of himself and his brothers and embolden him as a full-bore legend. As a film, Tombstone does him and his own mythology justice.

    Awesome and endlessly re-watchable.