‘Wild Bill’ (R)By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 01, 1995
WHEN JEFF Bridges pushes the curly locks out of his face, waits for a first move from his opponent, then blasts the varmint to kingdom come, it's one of a thousand (or so it seems) equally uninspired battles in "Wild Bill." Like the opium dreams that its eponymous hero becomes addicted to, this fragmented, trigger-happy account of Wild Bill Hickok's final years feels like a bad trip through every cheap western knockoff you ever had to sit through.
Take an early scene, set in Nebraska, 1867. Wild Bill refuses to buy a stranger a drink. So the stranger—stubbled, wild-eyed and in need of an orthodontist—crushes Hickok's hat. Instantly, Wild Bill blows him and all his dirty friends away.
"Gotta understand," he rasps to the bartender. "You don't ever touch another man's hat."
There are so many scenes like this, they blur into one, fire-blasting muddle, and you feel yourself drifting deeper into cliched oblivion.
For all his growly retorts, tough-guy swaggering and sharpshooting, Bridges does nothing to break out of this endless reverie. Writer/director Walter Hill's script is nothing but a rambling collection of shootouts, flashbacks (in black-and-white, of course) and more shootouts, which attempts to mythicize its own banality with significant datelines ("Abilene, Kansas, 1871," etc.) and stuffy-Brit narration from John Hurt, who plays Hickok's trusted English sidekick, Charley Prince.
Essentially, the story's about the bad karma coming Wild Bill's way, after all those women he loved and left, or those angry men whose brothers he killed in gunfights. Among the aggrieved are Will Plummer (Bruce Dern), an angry guy in a wheelchair who took it in the leg from Wild Bill years ago; and more significantly, weaselly Jack McCall (David Arquette), bent on avenging his mama (Diane Lane) for the callous treatment she got from Hickok.
Before the impending finale between Hickok and McCall, a lot of dramatic dead time is spent with miscast oddballs, including Hurt as the narratively superfluous Prince, Keith Carradine as Buffalo Bill (who helps us remember the difference between the two famous Bills, if nothing else), and Ellen Barkin's Calamity Jane, who's more Calamity than Jane, with her twisty smirk, cracking whip and plentiful ceegars. Like most of the performers, she's a series of shticks, rather than a memorable semi-legend. But in Hill's paltry round of gun-blazing, it's probably just as well.
WILD BILL (R) — Contains sexual situations, nudity, cowboy profanity and gunslinging violence.
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