Kevin Costner and director Lawrence Kasdan team up for a second western (their first together was Silverado) with Wyatt Earp the epic tale of one of the American west's most famous lawmen.
Based on actual events, the film begins with Earp (Kevin Costner) sitting patiently in a bar, waiting. Two men enter the bar and tell him of a problem at the OK Corral and after he asks a few questions, he grabs his six-shooter and heads out the door. From there we learn of Earp's childhood. His brothers served in the Civil War and his father was a judge. As such, he had a somewhat stern upbringing and morals and loyalty played a big part in his early life. When Wyatt's father (Gene Hackman) decides to move the family to greener pastures in California, not everyone is on board but with Wyatt still a kid, he has no choice but to tag along.
As time passes and Wyatt gets a little older he adjusts to his new life in the west. He makes friends easily and is liked and respected in the community and we see him, in a bit of foreshadowing, take a job refereeing boxing matches. While this isn't exactly what he wants to do with his life, it does show the people around him his sense of integrity and fair play. A few years down the road Wyatt goes back home to Missouri where he marries Urilla (Ananbeth Gish) who he's had a crush on for some time. They get a home and she gets pregnant but soon typhoid kills her and their unborn child. He starts drinking to cope with his loss and winds up on a fast downward spiral that ultimately sees him clean up his act and once again head west to start over. He makes ends meet hunting buffalo and works in a Casino but ultimately finds his calling when, by chance, he's given the opportunity to help the local sheriff's office take down a drunk gunman. He's deputized and winds up in Dodge, a town ripe with rowdy cowboys looking to cut loose and get into trouble. He does well here and cleans up the town until one key incident gets him into trouble and sees him fired from his post.
Earp finds employment working for the railroad where he eventually meets Doc Holliday (Dennis Quaid). Circumstances land the two friends in Tombstone, Arizona with Earp's two brothers in tow (Michael Madsen and Linden Ashby) along with Bat Masterson (Tom Sizemore), the brother of a deceased friend of Wyatt's. Wyatt hopes to make some money with the mines that have opened up in the area and lay down his guns but he soon finds himself on the wrong side of the Clantons, a gang who simply refuse to play by anyone's rules but their own. Earp and his posse soon have no choice but to take matters into their own hands.
Although Wyatt Earp is usually forgotten in the shadow of Tombstone as the films were released within a few months of each other and cover very similar ground but the fact is they're very different movies. Tombstone has more flash and maybe a more recognizable cast with an emphasis on action whereas Wyatt Earp is a quieter and more concise biographical study of the man behind the myth. Costner, riding a string of successful films (Dances With Wolves, Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves and The Bodyguard) is well suited for the lead and he brings an interesting sense of humanity to the part. His Earp is very flawed, he's temperamental and has a taste for drink and although his sense of honor and integrity are obvious, just like the rest of us he can and does make mistakes. Aiding Costner on screen are some great performances from Dennis Quaid, Gene Hackman and Tom Sizemore with fun supporting efforts from Michael Madsen, Katharine O'Hara, Isabella Rossellini and Bill Pullman. The film is well cast and well acted throughout.
As good as the cast is, however, the cinematography is even better. At over three hours in length, calling Wyatt Earp epic almost seems like an understatement so it's to director Lawrence Kasdan's credit that he hired Oscar nominated cinematographer Owen Roizman (the same man who shot The French Connection and The Exorcist for William Friedkin) to take care of the film's look. Roizman's efforts pay off in spades as the film just looks fantastic from start to finish, from the long sweeping shots of the countryside to the more intimate indoor scenes there's obviously been a lot of care put into the compositions and the lighting for the film and when combined with James Newton Howard's fantastic score, it makes for quite the experience.
The film's detractors usually state that there are too many subplots and that the film is too long, which is a fair enough criticism to levy. That said, packing such an important historical figure's life into ninety minutes would not have done its subject justice. Wyatt Earp is a film that relishes in the details. You can see an attempt at authenticity in pretty much every frame. Yes it is slow and yes there are scenes that aren't paced as well a they could be but overall this is a very strong film and despite its flaws, it's beautiful to look at and very well acted.
Wyatt Earp arrives on HD-DVD in a very nice 2.40.1 anamorphic VC-1 1080p transfer, that, while not perfect, looks good. There are some scenes where the black levels aren't quite as deep as you might hope and there are some fluctuations in color in a couple of spots but the good outweighs the bad. Detail is nice and sharp despite a little bit of grain here and there and any compression artifacts you might note are mild. Contrast is strong and there's a lot of depth to the movie, particularly during the daytime scenes taking place outside. It's nice to see a film that is as well shot as this one look good on HD-DVD, even if a few minor problems perk up and prevent it from standing as exceptional.
The main track on this disc is an English language Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround Sound mix. Alternate language dubs are available in French language Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo and in Spanish Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono with optional subtitles provided in English, French and Spanish.
For a film that isn't exactly new, Wyatt Earp sounds surprisingly good here. Dialogue is clean and clear and there are no problems whatsoever with hiss or distortion to complain about. The score sounds excellent and the sound effects, particularly the gunshots, pack a nice punch. Rears are used primarily for ambient noise and minor effects but you'll note some bullets whizzing by during a couple of the shootouts. When the film isn't delivering the action, the mix is a little on the quiet side and this isn't going to become your new home theater demo disc but the surround channels are used well and this mix is certainly of good quality.
The extras from the two-disc special edition standard definition release have been carried over to this HD-DVD. Supplements begin with It Happened That Way, a brief documentary that isn't really all that deep. There's some interesting on set footage here and some talking head interviews with a few of the cast members but very little actual substance. Lawrence Kasdan shows up and adds some interesting thoughts to the piece but seeing as this was made for television around the time of the film's release, it's not surprising to learn that this segment is more or less a promotional piece.
Thankfully the second featurette, Wyatt Earp: Walk With A Legend, is a little more interesting. Hosted by Tom Skerrit, we're given a quick overview of the movie and before the focus turns to the real Wyatt Earp. Unfortunately we don't go into a whole lot of detail here. That said, what makes this one interesting is the on set footage and the interviews with Costner, Kasdan and Charlton Heston.
Finishing off the supplements is the film's theatrical trailer (the only extra feature in anamorphic widescreen), a handful of uninteresting Lifted Scenes (slow, character development bits that don't add much), as well as some animated menus and chapter stops. Note that all of the supplements are presented in standard definition at either 480i or 480p, none of them are high definition.
Wyatt Earp isn't on the same level as some of the best epic westerns but it's a fine film none the less that probably doesn't get as much credit as it should. Costner is good in the lead and the supporting cast is terrific, while the cinematography is excellent and the story compelling. Warner's HD-DVD could have looked and sounded a little better than it does and the extras aren't anything to write home about but this is a decent presentation overall even if there's been room left for improvement. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.