A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.


January 2, 2011


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 | , , ,

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