Ever ready with a new theory, the social psychologists are saying that Western movies are making their current comeback because beleaguered Americans have a revived desire for law and order. Pin a star on an upright, fearless sheriff, let him clean the bad guys out of the local saloons, and we'll all feel more optimistic--at least for a couple of hours--that the chaos in our own streets can be stopped. Or so the story goes.
In any event, Wyatt Earp is back in town. In the person of Kurt Russell, he's the centerpiece of George P. Cosmatos's quirky new Western Tombstone, and this spring Kevin Costner will play him in a Lawrence Kasdan movie. Film buffs who believe Henry Fonda retired the part almost half a century ago in John Ford's exemplary My Darling Clementine may not believe it, but ol' Wyatt can still shoot the eye out of a snake at 200 yards.
Cosmatos is not the world's greatest director--his major credits include The Cassandra Crossing and Rambo: First Blood Part II--but he gets a lot of help here from a very bright young screenwriter named Kevin Jarre (Glory) and from actor Val Kilmer, who steals the show as the urbane gunfighter and gambler Doc Holliday. Gray-faced and bathed in sweat (this Southern gentleman's tuberculosis and hard living are clearly about to do him in), Kilmer gives a performance full of daring, dash and humor. Whether his Doc is parrying in Latin with the outlaw Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn) or reclining with his decadent Hungarian mistress, playing a little Chopin in a barroom or deftly outdrawing half a dozen varmints in the dusty streets, he's a continual source of fascination and high wit.
But we were discussing the estimable Mr. Earp, were we not? Once again, Tombstone chronicles the legend's late period when, having retired as marshal of Dodge City, the freshly minted entrepreneur and his two brothers resettled in the Arizona Territory in the hope of quietly making a fortune and dying in bed.
But, oh, the problems of retirement. You can't make a Western in 1993 without a few postmodern psychological embellishments, so Russell's Wyatt Earp is plagued by a wife (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson) who's whacked out on laudanum, by his own grave self-doubt and by an endless, ill-defined supply of shootists who want to put his notch on their guns. In case you missed Gunfight at the O.K. Corral back in 1957, Tombstone is so lawless that for reasons of conscience and that old standby, revenge, Our Hero must constantly pull himself up from his faro table (he's wangled a piece of the action), strap on his Colts and do battle with red-sashed, black-hatted bad guys.
In general, Russell is up to the task, although he seems a bit dour and stiff at times. He looks good in his droopy mustache and dashing black duster, and with help from brothers Virgil (Sam Elliott) and Morgan (Bill Paxton), and Holliday, he cleans up Tombstone once and for all amid some rather theatrical flashes of lightning and rumbles of thunder. We're never quite sure who all the bad guys are, just that there are lots of them.
Cutting and continuity are not Cosmatos's strong suits; atmosphere is. This version of the Western myth splits the difference between the old spotless John Wayne heroism and the sour revisionism of, say, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and there's some sly satire just below the surface. For one thing, Cosmatos and Jarre ably reveal the petty delusions of the grinning local boosters who insist that their rough little boomtown is about to become the next San Francisco--even as drunken miners are shooting holes in the ceiling of the new opera house and the infamous Curly Bill (Powers Boothe) is gunning down the reluctant geezer of a sheriff.
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The suave, aphoristic Holliday and the Earps, by contrast, personify another, by-now familiar take on the Old West's demise: Like Clint Eastwood's old gunfighter in Unforgiven, they are knowing and world-weary, veterans of the frontier who no longer find glory in gunfire but do the job because someone has to. This confers on them more stature than stock heroism--particularly the dissolute, self-destructive Doc--because their gallantry is always at odds with their resignation.
Here the oft-filmed O.K. Corral gunfight is sudden, brief and a little chaotic, like violence in real life, and the participants take less pleasure in it than we take in them. It's the film's high point, but not its conclusion. Cosmatos, by the way, has read the history books: While John Ford killed off Doc Holliday in the battle, this lesser director lets the great sophisticate expire, as he really did, in a Glenwood Springs rest home.
As for Wyatt Earp, after avenging the death of a brother and glimpsing the true meaning of life (these are the Nineties, after all--the Nineteen-nineties), he settles down with the worldly actress (Dana Delany) he's secretly loved for years. In the end we catch them in what presumably must now be Larimer Square, emerging from the theater in a romantic downfall of snow.
"Imagine," one overexuberant patron declares, "Gilbert and Sullivan--right here in Denver!" As Doc Holliday could tell you, some things never change.