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‘Tombstone’ (R)

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 25, 1993

"Tombstone's" epitaph could well be "How the Western Wear Was Worn." Highly stylized fashion-wise but awkwardly unfocused in its plotlines, it aims for the western iconography of Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone but never gets past its own directorial hurdles. Kevin Jarre, who wrote "Glory" and was set to make his directorial debut with this film, was fired a month into shooting and replaced by George Cosmatos ("Cobra," "Rambo: First Blood Part II"). Cosmatos apparently did a Rambo on Jarre's script, layering gratuitous violence on what was probably intended as a character study of classic western types.

Foremost of these is Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell), recently retired as marshal of Dodge City and looking for a more peaceful -- and more lucrative -- career with his brothers Morgan (Bill Paxton) and Virgil (Sam Elliott, authentic as a saddle). They find boom-town opportunity in the saloon world of Tombstone, where a still-raucous frontier energy is increasingly dulled by a civility expressed in snappy clothes, new-found manners and occasionally obeyed laws. The Earps, all of them long tall drinks of water, favor a black-tie form of western duds and even more somber speech.

The Cowboys, on the other hand, favor wise-guy machismo and gay caballero outfits with long red sashes to identify them as a gang (sort of 19th-century Bloods). They are "bad guys," so defined by a Robert Mitchum voice-over intro that describes them as the first wave of organized crime in America. Sure, they slaughter a Mexican wedding party (priest included) in an opening scene that aims to establish their ruthlessness, but that's a typically off-target move by Cosmatos. In Tombstone, the leaders of the Cowboys seem more inept bullies and dirty little cowards than dangerous criminals. This applies to such leaders as Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn), Curly Bill (Powers Boothe) and Ike Clanton (Stephen Lang), all of whom seem to be having more fun with their roles than the Earps.

Since the feud between these outlaws and the Earps is supposed to be the heart of the film, it's unfortunate that the reworked script doesn't really delineate that feud, a subsequent realignment with the McMasters brothers, or even Wyatt Earp's crucial friendship with Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer). The doomed Doc (he has TB) is the most interesting character in "Tombstone" -- a sodden Southern aristocrat (he disses Johnny Ringo in Latin) and unrepentant rogue deservedly given all the best lines. True to character, Kilmer steals the film.

There is a subtext dealing with women, but like much else on the character front, it seems to have been excised along the way. The Earps all have wives, but they are treated as children -- seen but seldom heard. The only woman who gets to express herself is Dana Delany as an actress who becomes the love of Wyatt Earp's life, which ran 40 quiet years past his fabled showdown at the OK Corral. That incident is treated here as more accident than fate, and diminished by subsequent montage-style shootouts that seem ridiculously stylized. As for the romance, it's flatter than a cowpie after a stampede.

A major problem throughout the film is the opting for style over substance, whether in terms of dark visuals or stark dialogue such as "It's not revenge [Wyatt's] after -- it's a reckoning," and "You called down the thunder -- I'm comin', and hell's comin' with me!" But too much of "Tombstone" rings hollow. In retrospect, not much happens and little that does seems warranted. There are so many unrealized relationships you almost hope for redemption in a longer video version. This one is unsatisfying and unfulfilling.

"Tombstone" contains scenes of violence.

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