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‘Wyatt Earp’ (PG-13)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 24, 1994

Now we know what they meant by cowpoke.

"Wyatt Earp," a bio-pic that lasts more than three hours and moves with the urgency of a grazing buffalo, lacks everything from a coherent dramatic structure to a clearly articulated point of view. Carved from a six-hour miniseries by director and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan, the movie recants the lawman's myth in favor of the mediocrities of the man himself. Dadgummit, he was dull.

Kevin Costner, on screen almost continuously in the title role, hasn't been this low-key since he made his debut as the corpse in Kasdan's "The Big Chill." Costner's Earp isn't strong and silent, he's long-faced and sexless as a Missouri mule. And while his fame was built on a 30-second gunfight near the O.K. Corral, this portrait begins in his callow youth and ends during the blue-haired years. Of course, most everything that comes before Wyatt and his brothers move to Tombstone, Ariz., could be cut away and there'd still be plenty of story left.

The film opens with a reference to the upcoming showdown between the Earps and their enemies that dissolves into a scene from Wyatt's childhood in the Iowa cornfields, where Pa (Gene Hackman) hands down the family values at the dinner table. "Nothing counts as much as blood; the rest are just strangers," he tells the teenage Wyatt, who lives by this motto for the rest of his life. Wyatt is not the sort to question things -- a handicap, really, in terms of character development.

Expected to practice law like his father and grandfather, Wyatt joins the family practice in Missouri, where he marries his first love, Urilla (Annabeth Gish). After an idyllic courtship and a few months of marriage, Urilla dies of typhoid and Wyatt drowns his sorrows in the bottle. He's arrested for stealing a horse in Arkansas, but escapes to Wichita, where he meets one or another of his brothers -- all but one of whom are married to whores.

The Earp boys (Michael Madsen, David Andrews, Linden Ashby) follow Wyatt's lead and eventually wind up in Tombstone with their wives (Catherine O'Hara, Alison Elliot, JoBeth Williams), who grouse about moving around all the time. The Earps come honestly by their taproot problem, having rambled all over the West with Pa, Ma (Betty Buckley) and the rest of the clan. During their travels, the boys befriend plucky Bat Masterson (Tom Sizemore), his perky brother Ed (Bill Pullman) and the quixotic Doc Holliday (Dennis Quaid).

The emaciated Quaid, who lost 40 pounds for the role of the tubercular existentialist, is perhaps the only actor who actually seems to be enjoying himself -- let alone giving a bigger-than-life-size performance. Coughing up a lung with each entrance, Quaid doesn't just steal scenes as this Georgia-bred gunslinger, but manages to revitalize the audience with every caustically comic appearance.

Considered a dangerous dandy by many, Doc became one of Wyatt's most loyal allies and was the only non-Earp to join the brothers in their shootout against the Clanton and McLaury gangs. Many a director has stretched that moment into minutes and made it his film's sudden, bloody centerpiece, but Kasdan treats it as the real Wyatt himself is said to have: He shrugs it off. His staging is as impersonal as a drive-by shooting. It's the walk from the saloon to the corral that gets most of Kasdan's attention -- the camera virtually caresses the heroes, hipless and haughty in 19th-century SWAT wear, who stride through Tombstone like fashion models on their way down a runway.

Kasdan, who spoofed the western genre in "Silverado," here embraces many of the cliches he so joyfully rebuked. This applies particularly to the film's romantic subplots, which are meant to attract a female audience. Kasdan and co-writer Dan Gordon sure do know the way to a cowgal's heart: lots of whores. Aside from the Earp brothers' missuses, there's Doc's girl, a Hungarian whore named Big Nose Kate (Isabella Rossellini), and Wyatt's second, common-law wife, Mattie (Mare Winningham), a clingy prostitute who becomes a laudanum addict when "loyal" Wyatt dumps her for the dazzling 19-year-old Josie Marcus (Joanna Going).

The former whores all refer to Josie as that "Hebe whore," but she is one of the few female characters in the film who make their living standing up. An actress from San Francisco, she comes to Tombstone to marry Wyatt's rival in the law business, slimy Sheriff Behan (played by Mark Harmon's fake mustache), but falls head over hoop skirt for the morose gunslinger.

In a moment that only two guy writers would think romantic, Wyatt explains that he can never love another woman as he did Urilla. Josie, still flush from a fling in the four-poster, says, "I just want to be close to you. When I'm 80, I want to be lying beside you like this." That is to say, with her head resting on his chest (Costner boasts a thick new pelt). Since the Earps are obsessed with family, she promises to give him babies.

But the boys seem to have been shooting blanks, because there isn't an infant Earp to be found in the movie. That's probably just as well, as we're up to our hat brims in underdone characters as it is.

The greater problem is that the film is so overplotted and understaged that pivotal scenes are as indistinguishable from the narrative as individual cows from the blur of the stampede. The same can be said for the many unexplored themes, including the central one: Does the man transform the country, or is it the other way around? But the filmmakers only dance around the answers, as Costner, in better days, waltzed with the wolves.

"Wyatt Earp" is rated PG-13 for violence and language.

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