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Savant Blu-ray Review

1993 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 134m. / Street Date April 27, 2010 / 29.99
Starring Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer, Sam Elliott, Bill Paxton, Powers Boothe, Michael Biehn, Charlton Heston, Jason Priestley, Dana Delany, Paula Malcomson, Lisa Collins, Dana Wheeler-Nicholson, Joanna Pacula, Billy Zane, Terry O'Quinn
Cinematography William A. Fraker
Production Designer Catherine Hardwicke
Film Editors Harvey Rosenstock, Roberto Silvi, Frank J. Urioste
Original Music Bruce Broughton
Writing credits Kevin Jarre
Produced by Sean Daniel, Buzz Feitshans, James Jacks, Bob Misiorowski, Andrew G. Vajna
Directed by George P. Cosmatos

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

"Have you no kind words to say .... before I ride away?"
as sung by Frankie Laine, 1956.

The various Doc Holidays have been saying those words to the various Kate Fishers since the silent days, and the oft-repeated line still works in Tombstone, a 1990s version of the saga of the O.K. Corral. With a solid cast of character actors and a creative team that shows no sign of having been responsible for Rambo Part II, this unpretentious, somewhat unambitious movie is unusually easy on the eyes. At its best, it evokes the fun of older, unselfconscious Western filmmaking.

The Earp brothers, Wyatt (Kurt Russell), Morgan (Bill Paxton) and Virgil (Sam Elliott) come to Tombstone to make their fortune running a Faro table. Wyatt's given up town taming, and has a strained relationship with his laudnum-tippling wife Mattie (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson). His brothers have wives as well, and all would work out if it were not for the notorious, red-sash wearing 'Cowboy' gang led by the onerous Curly Bill Brocious (Powers Boothe) and the snakelike Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn). Massacring innocents and basically running a reign of terror, they control the dapper County Sheriff (Jon Tenney), even after murdering the aged Town Marshal (Harry Carey Jr). Reluctantly, the Earps step in to fill the gap between law 'n' order and outright chaos. Wyatt's disturbed by the interruption in business, and by his own interest in the new actress in town, Josephine Marcus (Dana Delaney). As Tombstone erupts in gunfights and vindictive murders, Wyatt can depend on little else beyond his best friend Doc Holiday (Val Kilmer), a consumptive classics-quoting cardsharp with an acute sense of loyalty.

The Western as a genre simply fell apart during the '70s, with crime and science fiction films turning more action-oriented to compensate. Westerns provide structure and context, but American filmmakers were no longer concerned with the issues the genre had developed and repeated for 70 years. There were of course exceptions, but when Lawrence Kasdan tackled Silverado in 1985, it was like a puppet show trying to reintroduce the graces of a lost art form. Only Dances with Wolves and Unforgiven looked like possible new chapters in Western genre history, but even they were really reprises of older ideas (Run of the Arrow, Man of the West). Tombstone is so old-fashioned it's almost generic. But it happily goes against the grain of would-be 'innovators', such as the Young Guns films that injected music video sensibilities into the genre, to no positive effect whatsoever.

The saga of the Earps and their political machine versus Ike Clanton and his 'marshals' for control of an Arizona territory in the 1880s has been filmed so much that the complexity of the original conflict has been totally lost in translation. The most famous version is the John Ford fantasy My Darling Clementine, that makes Earp a simple decent man who takes on injustice the same way he personally kicks a drunken Indian out of Tombstone: "What kinda town is this - sellin' liquor to Indians?" Ford's whitewash made the struggle in Tombstone out to be a noble resistance against a simple family of rustling killers led by Walter Brennan. Ford's biographers like to repeat the story (possibly quite true) that the elderly Earp, who moved to Pasadena at the turn of the century, was actually an on-set consultant for Ford Westerns in the '20s.

Television and Hugh O'Brien turned Wyatt into a spotless hero, another Matt Dillon clone. John Sturges' Gunfight at the OK Corral, which featured the song lyrics above, retained the basic fib of making the Tombstone quarrel a simple spat between a lawless rancher and the saintly Earp Marshalls. It was Sturges' return to the story in 1967's Hour of the Gun that redefined the Wild West as a real place instead of a cowboy fairyland. A lot of facts were introduced to the movies for the first time. The OK Corral was just one skirmish in a violent competition to control a huge Arizona territory. The Earps and the Clantons had conflicting interests, and both placed overlapping legal jurisdictions behind their causes: whenever a fight occurred, the participants all wore legitimate badges and had their pockets stuffed full of legal warrants for the arrest of their opposite numbers. After the OK Corral fight, Earp's brothers were indeed murdered and wounded. Wyatt and his friend Holiday tracked the rest of the Clanton gang down as a vendetta, even going into Mexico to find Ike Clanton. Hour of the Gun charts Wyatt's transformation into an almost psychotic killer. The violence in Tombstone renders both sides unsuitable to become the political lords of Arizona; it's like Democrats vs. Republicans.

Tombstone returns to the older idea that the Clantons and their cronies are just a pack of no-gooders greatly in need of exterminating, and that the law the Earps respect is more a hindrance than a help. In a very poorly conceived opening, the red-sashed Cowboy gang murders half the members of a Mexican wedding party, as if they were the original gangstas in the hood. With the prevailing ambivalent attitude toward right and wrong in movies, it now takes an atrocity to establish Baddies as 'bad'. In My Darling Clementine, one baleful look from Walter Brennan did the job.

The Earps initially function as rapacious businessmen, eager to get their piece of the gambling corruption in Tombstone. Wyatt has had enough of taming towns to secure profits for other businessmen, and he stays neutral to Law issues until Virgil pulls them all back into Sheriff mode. Remaining a level headed if slightly thick hero, Kurt Russell's married Wyatt is tempted by a beautiful actress, and prevails against his enemies mostly through the actions of the charmingly fatalistic Doc Holiday. Friendship and loyalty are what count, not the Law or social ideals. Although its six-gun confrontations eventually dissolve into awkward montages of shoot 'em up action, the show is consistent and well paced. It reaches the same climax as Hour of the Gun in a Glenwood Springs sanitarium, but opts to leapfrog back to the simple buddy love ending of earlier versions of the story. That the show doesn't come off as hopelessly retro is a good sign for the Western.

All the major roles are filled by actors who were potential star leads and didn't make the grade. Kurt Russell has always been able to carry a lead role, so he's the exception. But one-note journeymen like Sam Elliott, Powers Boothe and Michael Biehn got lost trying to be leading men, when they're perfect in masculine ensembles such as this. Even Biehn, who comes off as particularly amateurish in leading roles in cheap action movies, makes a solid professional impression here. Howard Hawks would have no quarrel with this casting.

Pretty-boy Val Kilmer was the buzz in 1993 for his oddball depiction of Doc Holiday. What initially comes off as a skit-like spin (strange speech, odd mannerisms) links up nicely with the good, archaic dialogue in the script by Kevin Jarre. Doc's preening is a nice counterpoint to the almost deadpan performance of Kurt Russell. The only sub-par angle is that bloodbath opening: I'll bet it was tacked on with the idea of making Tombstone more "modern".

The peripheral roles do more than their share of the work. The women have barely any screen time, but Dana Delaney (late of the China Beach TV show) gets some depth into her depiction of an 'anti-Clementine'. Her dark-haired looker from the East is anything but virginal but a prize catch nonetheless. In what would seem a suicidal casting choice, Charlton Heston has a glorified bit as a rancher with only a handful of lines. But Heston (a fine screen actor, for certain) scales down his overpowering presence so as not to hog his scenes, proving that he has his ego under control and can contribute on any scale.

Bill Fraker's clear-eyed camerawork looks great, and doesn't overdo the mud or dust trying to be original (as with the awful Wild Bill). George Cosmatos' direction is equally unfussy and unaffected, which immediately puts him in good stead against all the '90s punks who've foisted personal styles upon us in an attempt to be the next Cameron or Tarantino. Neither revisionist nor particularly original, Tombstone nevertheless is solidly entertaining, much like the older Westerns we so dearly loved.

Cinergi & Disney's Blu-ray of Tombstone is a problematic follow up to the old Vista Series two disc DVD set from 2002. Picture and sound are very handsome, as expected, and attractively photographed landscapes have always been a major pleasure in westerns. Once again, after DVD has given us an extended director's cut, the Blu-ray reverts to the shorter Theatrical cut, without comment. This has been a frequent occurrence lately. Tombstone without those added scenes isn't an appreciably different experience, but the film's fans surely want to see it anyway.

Three extras have been retained from the DVD special edition, including a three part promotional documentary. A feature on the film's storyboards and some trailers and TV spots round out the coverage. This being a Disney-distributed disc, our "viewing pleasure" begins with three lengthy trailers for Disney product and a promo for Blu-ray. It is like having a movie theater in your home -- the disc replicates the annoying commercials before the main feature.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Tombstone Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: three featurette, storyboards, TV spots and trailers
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 19, 2010

Adapted from an older DVD review from 2002.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2010 Glenn Erickson

See more exclusive reviews on the Savant Main Page.
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