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A FIRING OFFENSE

The sun continues to set on Western movies, but there's still time for a picture about Wild Bill Hickok that doesn't make him out to be a saint, a singer or romantic fiction from a dime novel. Wild Bill, written and directed by an old hand named Walter Hill, purports to be that picture--the last word on a legend. But it misses the mark badly, despite the best efforts of its star, Jeff Bridges.

If anything, Hill's work here embodies the problem faced by any moviemaker still brave enough to tread the shifting sands of the Old West--how to portray a frontier hero without seeming a sentimental fool or a liar; how to reinvent the myth without playing the sour revisionist or the debunking smart aleck.

The problem just may be insoluble, which is probably why Westerns have been largely put out to pasture.

The Wild Bill Hickok we meet here has almost nothing in common, save excellent marksmanship, with the upright square William S. Hart gave us in 1921, the outright Galahad that Cecil B. Demille made of Gary Cooper in The Plainsman, or the assorted Richard Dixes, Forrest Tuckers and Robert Culps who have grappled with the Hickok role through the decades. Bridges's ill-tempered Wild Bill, with his tangled locks, strange gaze (Hickok suffered from glaucoma) and twin six-shooters, tries at once to be the classic avenging angel who cleans up wide-open towns and a kind of postmodern dreamer whose opium-induced flashbacks are crammed with past demons and haunting mistakes, all marching through his consciousness at a crazy tilt, in hip black and white. Imagine John Ford under the influence of Andy Warhol and you have a notion of the visual style Hill foists off on us.

Alas, the old gunslinger's life, as we see it here, is not only arty, but artistically grubby. Narrated by Hickok's old friend, the transplanted English gentleman Charley Prince (John Hurt), it's a life full of bravado and violence, dressed up in ten-cent myth. "He fashioned himself an ordinary man," Charley tells us, "but it was his destiny to play the hero."

Kind of. In the course of shooting dead every polecat and reputation-seeker in the dark, grungy saloons of Abilene, Cheyenne and points west, our man remains happily unwashed and stubbornly free of regret--at least when he's not whacked out of his mind on the Chinese pipe. "I don't explain myself," he explains, sounding a little like Deion Sanders. The implication, of course, is that a man who handles a gun as well as Wild Bill doesn't have to explain himself. Trouble is, the movie doesn't explain him either, although it takes great pains in the effort.

"Don't ever touch another man's hat," Wild Bill warns an unfortunate challenger just before pumping three or four slugs into him. Is this the code of the Old West, dumbed down for the Nineties? Sure sounds like it. In any event, the good marshal proceeds to blast away at anybody else who touches his beloved hat. Meanwhile he plays a lot of poker, drinks a river of booze and moves on inexorably toward the mud-drenched streets of Deadwood, where his famous end came at the hands of a coward.

Working from Pete Dexter's novel Deadwood, director Hill (The Long Riders, Geronimo) takes on the role of historian as well as myth maker. He gives us a rather too-swift montage of Hickok's greatest hits, including the time he lashed himself to a chair in order to even up a gunfight against a cripple (Bruce Dern) and his successful outing against a half-dozen enraged soldiers in Fort Hays. We also get a glimpse of his discomfort as a bit player in Buffalo Bill Cody's theatrical troupe: The real McCoy, it says here, was not happy at play-acting.

The central tragedy of Hickok's life, we're told, was the burden of his own celebrity. A pioneer in this realm, he had to keep killing wannabes envious of his reputation, and the seed of his own undoing lay in his dispatching the husband of a woman he once loved, Susannah Moore (Diane Lane). Because this is 1995, Hill parlays the latter trauma into a thriving case of what we now call sexual dysfunction. This involves the famous Calamity Jane, who's here played as a screeching, covetous toughie by Ellen Barkin. Bill and Jane, old lovers, start to get it on again in a kind of 1870s hot tub, but Bill "ain't in the mood." When the legendary pair finally do renew their sexual acquaintance, they're rudely interrupted, right there on the card table, by would-be assassins. Thus are the erotic quandaries of twentieth century America grafted onto the rip-roarin' verities of the Hollywood Western--to rather ludicrous effect. In his most subversive mood, not even Robert Altman steamrolled a Western protagonist so thoroughly.

Say this for Jeff Bridges: He does his best to round out a character that has loomed large in the popular imagination for more than a century. Unfortunately, Walter Hill's feuding instincts--traditional heroism versus irony and grit--keep getting in the way of the portraiture. Not only that, Wild Bill is just a little bit dull, and those damn dream sequences are brutal. This is a more admirable effort than, say, Lawrence Kasdan's endless Wyatt Earp, but it's plagued by the same ambiguity: how to reinvent a frontier hero when time and tide and dogged reassessment of the Western myth have likely turned it into a fool's errand.

 
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