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ORDEAL AT THE O.K. CORRAL

Now that Westerns are back, you can get a fresh, vivid look at the Wyatt Earp/Doc Holliday legend by renting Tombstone at the video store. Released in theaters six months ago, George P. Cosmatos's swift, concise hayburner features the able Kurt Russell as vengeful lawman Earp and edgy Val Kilmer as the fellow who's been upstaging him in movies ever since sound came in: Kilmer's elegant, dangerous and dissolute Doc Holliday once again steals the show, and this fine actor is sheer pleasure to watch from start to finish.

On the other hand, if you're in the mood for an ordeal occasionally relieved by pretty scenery, try Wyatt Earp. Featuring Mr. Nembutal himself, Kevin Costner, Lawrence Kasdan's meandering saga of Family, Law and Justice--with emphasis on the capital letters--is as flat-footed as it is high-minded. The famous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral runs less than a minute, but it takes Kasdan three hours to get there--a period in which he traces Earp's entire life, from the uncertainties of adolescence to the sorrow of an early marriage, a fall into horse thievery and drunkenness, a stint (with Bat Masterson) as a buffalo hunter and, finally, his redemption as a trigger-happy lawman in Dodge City and Tombstone. Given Kasdan's penchant to tell all, I wondered why we don't see the kid's toilet training as well.

If you didn't know better, you'd suspect the director (perpetrator of Grand Canyon and The Bodyguard) of trying to reset The Godfather in the Old West. The Brando part falls, very briefly, to the estimable Gene Hackman, who plays the Earp brothers' stern, moralizing father. "Nothing counts so much as blood," he tells the boys. "The rest are just strangers."

That's Don Corleone to a T, and Wyatt Earp, too, is both a stubborn paean to brotherly loyalties and a relentless bloodbath. Francis Ford Coppola and Kasdan are both clearly inspired by Shakespeare and the Greek playwrights, but the latter moviemaker doesn't grasp epic style, and he doesn't quite know what to do with his three-plus hours of screen time. This is a shapeless, metronomic film in which skinning a buffalo carries just as much weight as gunning down Johnny Ringo or Curly Bill in the street. The consistently inexpressive Costner doesn't do much for the dynamics, either: He looks fine in his black hat and drooping mustache, but his delivery is still like dripping water, and you wonder if he's about to fall asleep right there at the faro table.

The huge supporting cast includes Michael Madsen, David Andrews and Linden Ashby as Wyatt's brothers, Catherine O'Hara, Jobeth Williams, Mare Winningham and Joanna Going as their long-suffering wives and/or girlfriends, Mark Harmon as a yellow-bellied sheriff and Dennis Quaid--who doesn't outpoint Costner with the audience, because his skinny slice of the script doesn't let him--as Doc Holliday. The bad guys are too numerous to count (even dead), and their identities are hard to follow.

There's some murky jive in here about the abuses of power (before getting out of Dodge, the Earp brothers degenerate into a kind of Gestapo), but for the most part, Wyatt Earp carries the same fashionable get-tough-on-crime message that sociologists and other pests claim accounts for the current Western revival.

In any event, Tombstone is a much livelier and more entertaining film. If you can't track that one down, go for the brass ring. Half a century ago, John Ford all but retired the Wyatt Earp saga with his exemplary My Darling Clementine, and you still won't find a better Western.

 
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