Tombstone is the last big action (not revisionist) Western that collected a gigantic cast of stars to breathe life into a canon story of the American West. Forget The Expendables, Tombstone is an 80s/90s celebration of action stars. Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer, Michael Biehn, Powers Boothe, Stephan Lang and BILLY ZANE to name a few, take us to Tombstone, the setting for the gunfight at the O.K Coral, and take some liberty with history for our entertainment. Tombstone begins as an idea to escape for the Earp family (Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan). Wyatt has made his life as a Kansas law man and is looking to settle down with a family peacefully. When they arrive the ‘Cowboys,’ lead by Curly Bill Brocious and his malicious right hand Johnny Ringo, all but run the territory and the Earps are forced to intervene.
What’s sensational about Kevin Jarre’s script is that far more of the epic showdowns in Tombstone are those that don’t result in violence and death. Instead the violence is the punctuation of meeting of minds and words. Watching the first meeting of Curly Bill (Boothe) and Johnny Ringo (Biehn) with Wyatt (Russell) and Doc (Kilmer) is like watching the lighting of a fuse, triggering a forthcoming Michael Bay sized explosion. Curly Bill is a seductive snake attempting to goad the stoic and silent Wyatt into a reaction from his seated position as a pharaoh card game table. Wyatt won’t bite and Curly Bill keeps parading like his hierarchical position isn’t threatened. However it’s the ‘side-kicks’ in this film that dwarf their leads in almost every respect. Ringo can’t help but test the same waters with Doc and he meets a man, despite clearly wading through a haze of whiskey, is as sharp as a razor. Watching the contrast of Ringo’s gun theatrics and Doc’s whisker cup response speaks volumes about the characters.
Tombstone has the feeling of a classic John Ford or Howard Hawks Western because one half of Wyatt’s story is his chaste courting of Dana Delaney’s Josephine Marcus the extremely progressive woman. Dana Wheeler-Nicholson’s Mattie Earp retreats into the non-existence, dosed to the gills on laudanum (essentially liquid opium). It’s performance enhanced demure. While the outspoken, forthright, sexual (yeah she’s having a boudoir photo shoot alongside the O.K Coral at the time of the shootout) and intellectual Josephine seems to be the only thing that interests Wyatt. Mattie is portrayed as the obligatory accessory to life of a man settling down; while Josephine is the sublime movement and transience that Wyatt needs, being that he won’t stand for injustice. Jarre’s script, assisted by Russell and Delaney’s performances rides that knife’s edge of romantic and saccharine.
If anything can be said of director George P. Cosmatos’ approach, it’s to allow his actors to take the reins of their characters and to play to steal every damned scene from one and other. For a director with only three films on his resume, that’s disappeared off the IMDB (internet movie database) map, he should be retroactively commended for not only juggling, but seemingly stoking, the egos of the entire troupe. Sam Elliot’s Virgil Earp is a quintessential cowboy; Billy Bob Thornton’s Johnny Tyler is what happened when Bad Santa went Back to the Future 3; Billy Zane’s Mr. Fabian is the most overtly gay performer the West has seen and he’s brave enough to stand proud in front of barbarians. However despite those notable stand outs, Tombstone rests on four pillars.
The ‘right hand’ men are the reason we all keep going back to Tombstone.
In 2015 Val Kilmer seems to be written off as ‘that other Batman’ or that guy in the Tenacious D film clip. In the late 80s and early 90s Val Kilmer was an acting force that in the right director’s hands or with the right script, was almost certain to knock your socks off. Whether it was Heat, The Doors, Willow, Top Gun, True Romance and The Ghost and the Darkness; he had an intensity and a charm that if given the right forum made him leap out from the crowd. As Doc he’s an utter joy. Physically he’s pasty, damp, lethargic and seems to be skating on the edge of consciousness in more than one scene. Ultimately it’s his disguise; his reputation as one of the most dangerous guns of the West precedes him. The alcohol just allows him to look less threatening to those that he’s in the process of robbing blind, or those who may have heard of his legend. Kilmer too plays Doc’s illness like the result of past sins. He’s been a bad man and he’s courting death.
Conversely, Michael Biehn’s Johnny Ringo is unabashedly murderous; he wants to be feared, wants the biggest scalps and wanted to flaunt his intellect. He’s fuelled by the reputation and instinct that Doc’s continually drowning out with the bottle. Biehn’s plays him with a kind of purity of purpose that doesn’t allow him to compute Doc.
Russell’s Wyatt is just a grizzly bear in hibernation. He’s dozed off into a relationship with Dana Wheeler-Nicholson’s opium addicted Mattie and is roused by the prospect of happiness with his brothers and Delaney’s Josephine Marcus. That is until every thing that he holds dear comes under threat from Cowboys; they should not have poked the bear. Russell’s wrath is swift and he takes a kind of maddening joy in extinguishing the entire gang. Even under threat caught in the cross fire you can’t help but believe that Russell’s Earp could frighten foes into quaking in their boots. Like Doc, he does whatever he can to avoid being pushed to the carnage, because once he’s in it, he’s intoxicated by it.
Booth’s Curly Bill is a nihilistic showman, twirling a pistol instead of a baton at the head of his Cowboy followers, a kind of agent of chaos that attempts to colour inside the lines of law, until he just doesn’t want to anymore. In an opium stupor he stumbles out into the Tombstone thoroughfare and howls at the moon, until he can’t stay that it won’t bend to his commands and then he begins firing at it. Booth just reeks of a perverse enjoyment in the bloodletting, and it makes him all the more fun to watch.
Gun fights, murder, open frontier warfare; Tombstone relegates action to the background and its rambunctious and unforgettable characters to centre stage.
Four and a half stars
Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Director: George P. Cosmatos, Kevin Jarre
Written by: Kevin Jarre
Kurt Russell: Wyatt Earp
Doc Holiday: Val Kilmer
Sam Elliot: Virgil Earp
Bill Paxton: Morgan Earp
Powers Boothe: Curly Bill Brocious
Michael Biehn: Johnny Ringo
Charlton Heston: Henry Hooker
Jason Priestley: Bill Breckinridge
Jon Tenney: Behan
Stephan Lang: Ike Clanton
Thomas Haden Church: Billy Clanton
Dana Delaney: Josephine Marcus
Paula Malcomson: Allie Earp
Lisa Collins: Louisa Earp
Dana Wheeler-Nicholson: Mattie Earp
Joanna Pacula: Kate
Michael Rooker: Sherman McMasters
Billy Bob Thornton: Johnny Tyler
Tomas Arana: Frank Stillwell
Paul Ben-Victor: Florentino
Billy Zane: Mr. Fabian
John Corbett: Barnes
Terry O’Quinn: Mayor John Clum
Robert Mitchum: Narrator