A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Tombstone

January 2, 2011

Tombstone

I can’t believe that this is the only western we own. I actually really enjoy a good western and of course I’ve seen a fair share. It’s just that somehow none of them have made their way into our collection. I can’t believe I never bought Unforgiven, or Silverado, or any of the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns. We don’t own Sam Raimi’s The Quick and the Dead. We don’t own Shane. We don’t even own that pretty-boy made-for-teenaged-girls heartthrob western Young Guns. Amanda has a general dislike for the entire genre, and the only reason we even own this one is that it stars Val Kilmer.

The sad truth is that I don’t actually love this movie as much as my wife does. For her it is the only western she can stand to watch, but for me it is a poorly plotted mish-mash of western tropes, which is odd since it is based on real events and supposedly many of the happenings in the film are fairly faithful to what witnesses in the day related. The biggest problem with the movie is that I don’t really end up rooting for anybody. It’s implied that I’m supposed to want Wyatt Earp and his clan to emerge victorious, but at the same time the movie (in what I assume is an attempt to maintain its historical integrity) portrays Wyatt and his brothers as thugs and gangsters who are getting rich off the misery of gamblers and other unfortunates in the town of Tombstone. It’s essentially a movie about a gang turf war, and both gangs claim the high ground and eventually have badges declaring them to be lawmen. Both gangs have a pet psychopath – the sickly Doc Holiday on the Earp side and the deranged madman Johnny Ringo on the other. Now all this moral ambiguity would probably work with the right writer and director at the helm. Eastwood’s Unforgiven for example is very much about how nobody is really as upstanding as they might wish to be and how heroes are often as despicable as the villains they battle against. But Tombstone also wants to be a rip-roaring western adventure film, so it plays down the moral ambiguity and tries hard to show just how despicable the Cowboy gang are. It just doesn’t work for me and I don’t enjoy watching it. It tries to have all the good times and fun adventure of, say, Silverado, but still be faithful to the savage times it’s trying to portray and the end result is confusing and unfocused.

I understand that this might partly be the result of an extremely troubled production. The original director was canned by the studio and the script was severely re-written when the new director came onto the project. Kurt Russell also claims to have directed large portions during the rudderless period between directors in an attempt to keep the movie afloat. I suppose it should be considered a miracle that under such circumstances the movie is as cohesive as it is.

I suppose that part of the reason it works at all is that there are huge parts of the movie that are just masses of western cliches strapped together. It doesn’t have the feel of a light-hearted homage like Silverado to it – it is dead serious – but there’s almost the feeling at times that the whole film could be edited together from the amassed footage of other westerns that went before. There’s the tense saloon standoff. The accusation of cheating at a poker game. The quick draw showdown. At one point a theater full of rowdy cowboys hoot an hollar and fire their side-arms into the air like in a cartoon. (I was waiting at the time for a shot of the badly damaged theater roof.) Near the end of the movie the adventures of Wyatt Earp devolve into a montage of revenge: lynchings, galloping shootouts, carts shown in silhouette against the Arizona sky, more shootouts. There’s a whole lot of shots of Kurt Russell riding along with a look of steely determination and firing his six-gun wildly. At times it’s almost comical.

The thing that saves this movie from being utterly awful is the fantastic cast they brought together for it. Kurt Russell is nominally the star since everything revolves around Wyatt, but the producers have absolutely packed the entire film with familiar faces. Sam Elliott is of course perfect as Virgil. Bill Paxton as the impressionable younger brother Morgan is amiable and pleasant. Michael Biehn is the psychopathic Ringo, and he does a great job being the aloof and erudite but somewhat insane member of the Cowboys. Charlton Heston has a very small cameo appearance. Robert Mitchum does the opening and closing narration. Amanda spotted Billy Bob Thornton in a small role as a belligerent card dealer. And of course there’s Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday. He has all the best parts of the movie, really.

The whole part of Doc Holliday is the one thing that this movie handles just right. He’s a nefarious cheat, gunman and thief from the very start of the movie. He doesn’t care about anything because he’s dying and he knows it. I’d almost rather that the movie were more about him than about Wyatt, because his complete lack of morals makes him such an intriguing character. Of course the movie tries to play him as a hero, and works hard to stress that there is real affection between him and Wyatt, but it doesn’t shy away from giving him a certain edge. Val Kilmer plays him wonderfully, and it’s probably one of the most complex roles I’ve ever seen him undertake.

I don’t really enjoy this movie all that much. I wish we had some better representatives of the Western genre in our collection (though Amanda would no doubt veto any attempts to add any now.) But still, I will probably watch this again some time just for Val Kilmer and Doc Holiday. So I suppose it’s not irredeemable – just like Doc.

January 2, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 308 – Tombstone

Tombstone – January 2nd, 2011

I am not a big fan of traditional Westerns. It’s tough for me to put my finger on why, though I suspect it’s a combination of most of the genre being about manly men doing manly things and some unfortunate early exposure where I had to watch the entirety of The Searchers while I had a 100+ degree fever and was then criticized for not loving it. My bias, let me share it. And I am well aware that at least some of it is foolish bias. I won’t apologize for not always enjoying a “men shooting at things” movie. If done with style and not simply brute force I’d be willing to make a go of it. And this movie does indeed have style, which is why I like it.

Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday is definitely my number one reason for liking this movie. Sure, he’s coughing up blood for most of it and he looks like he’s about to keel over right from the start. He’s clammy and pale and his eyes are bloodshot. He’s sick. And yet he still manages to be the slickest dude in the movie. Yeah, the Earps are cool and all, but Holliday is suave. I could watch this movie only for him and I’d be happy. Him and his fantastic coat. The one he’s wearing on the cover. I covet that coat.

While Kilmer as Holliday is what originally drew me to this movie, I do enjoy more of it than him. But it does have a good deal of flaws. It’s terrifically fictionalized, from what I’ve read, but well, I really don’t expect complete historical accuracy here. It makes it so much more dramatic to speed things up and have people be in the right place at the right time. And while eventually Wyatt Earp did indeed get a posse together and go hunting down his brother’s killers for revenge, in the movie it’s all made out to be very much a good vs. bad situation. In real life, well, there’s bad and then there’s varying levels of not-bad. Things got messy, but messy doesn’t make for the same sort of dramatic tension as a clear hero.

Wyatt Earp is set up right away as a reluctant hero who’d prefer to avoid fighting altogether. He refuses several requests that he take a law enforcement position in his new home and he gets rid of a troublesome faro dealer at the saloon he later works in without firing a shot or even being armed. Clearly this man is the man we want to win. The man we’ll be pissed off to see hurt. While his brothers back him up, Holliday is the real co-star here, being the rogue to play against Wyatt’s more straightlaced ways. I’ve mentioned it before, but really, having a knight/rogue dynamic in an action/adventure story works so well if you get the characters right (and from my reading it seems this was rather true to their actual personalities). It’s a great duo. And our villain, Curly Bill, is set up to be pure evil right from the start, interrupting a wedding to murder everyone, priest included, before sitting down to eat the wedding feast, surrounded by corpses. This is a movie trying very hard to put white hats on the Earps and Holliday and a hat black as coal on Curly Bill.

What with being based on historical events, the plot of the movie is sort of a given. Wyatt and his brothers, wife and sisters-in-law move to Tombstone to try and make some money and build decent lives. This is made difficult by a gang of outlaws known as the Cowboys who have ensconced themselves in the town. Wyatt avoids getting involved, but eventually his brothers, Virgil and Morgan, get themselves deputized because they can’t bear to sit by and watch the town be terrorized. The O.K. Corral gunfight happens mid-movie and then the rest of the movie is about the fallout from it, following the Cowboys’ revenge on the Earps and Wyatt’s revenge on the Cowboys for their revenge. The beginning starts with a clearly delineated good and bad but pretty soon we’re riding through a whole lot of grey area. And I don’t mind grey area. I like questionable morals and characters who seem like good people but who do horrible things and characters who seem like bad people but manage to do good. The problem is that while that’s how history actually went, that’s not how the movie presented itself to start. By the time Wyatt Earp and his posse go off to hunt down the Cowboys they’re working against the law. Wyatt’s no longer a lawman looking to bring murderers to trial. He’s a vengeance-obsessed brother, killing people on sight.

There’s an attempt at the beginning to do some biblical foreshadowing, having one of the people at the wedding quote Revelations 6:8, with the pale horse and whatnot. And then later, when Wyatt has truly lost his calm, he shouts about how he’s going after the Cowboys and bringing hell with him. The King James Bible translation of that particular bit reads “And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.” There’s lots of imagery of Wyatt on a horse, with three other men with him, riding across the plains to deal out death to his foes. It’s an attempt not just to make Wyatt Earp a hero, but to make him mythical. Stories of the Old West are a modern mythology for the United States and I will acknowledge that this movie made a valiant attempt. Unfortunately, Death on his pale horse, bringing Hell with him to Earth? Not really a heroic figure, you know? And it flies in the face of the whole Good and Bad thing that the movie set up at the start.

It’s all a pity really, because there are a lot of good performances here from people I enjoy. Sam Elliott is mighty fine as Virgil and Bill Paxton does a nice job with Morgan. I like Kurt Russell as Wyatt, even though I think the character is scripted unevenly. And I like Micheal Biehn as Johnny Ringo, Doc Holliday’s personal nemesis in this fictionalized account of events. And of course I like Kilmer as Holliday. I wish things had been done differently from the outset. From what I can tell the production was plagued with problems, from an overlong script to an absent director to trouble finding someone to distribute the picture. Maybe if things had gone smoother? But no, because the problem is the script from the start, trying to take what could have been a very interesting story about people doing horrible things for the “right” reasons, and squishing it into rigid morality roles. So while I do enjoy the movie, it’s not without reservations and it’s mostly for some great gunfight scenes and Val Kilmer in his kickass coat.

January 2, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | 2 Comments