'Tombstone': Amusing revisionist blowout at the O.K. Corral

December 24, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

With his handlebar mustache and high-Victorian wardrobe, Kurt Russell looks amazingly like the authentic Wyatt Earp, the architect of the gunfight at O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Ariz., in 1881. But that's where the authenticity in "Tombstone" stops -- ,, at the facial hair and mourning-coat level.

A generally bad but quite entertaining revisionist romp through the saloons and brothels of the town too tough to die, "Tombstone" has great fun mixing styles, facts, wisecracks and archetypes in new and generally unrecognizeable ways.

Wyatt, for example, is now a far cry from Henry Fonda's stately, taciturn icon of respectability in John Ford's 1946 "My Darling Clementine." He's that new guy thing, the "paralyzed male." In fact, indecision, regret, reluctance and confusion cloud him; he doesn't even want to make the long, sloughing march through the dust to the corral where the drunken Clantons are waiting. He hopes they'll sober up and go away. What, has he been dancing around the firelight with Robert Bly? Does he listen to Alan Prell? He thinks it's the I'm-OK-you're-OK corral?

In the Earp nuclear family, as "Tombstone" has it, the role of warrior male has been passed on to older brother Virgil, played by the stately, taciturn Sam Elliott as an icon of respectability. In fact, of the various cowboys and gundogs of "Tombstone," only Elliott would have been welcomed on a Ford set. All the others would be dismissed as Nancy Boys.

The movie is full of outlandish touches of the sort that would never have been permitted in the more austere and earlier incarnations of the genre. My favorite was a scene where Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer) and Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn) hurl Latin epigrams at each other in a flurry of erudite one-upmanship. It's a delicious conceit: gunmen as fallen intellectuals, Poe and Rimbaud, each on a course of glamorous Nietzschean self-destruction. Why is Johnny so bad, the dull Earp asks the poetic Holliday. He's getting revenge for the day he was born, responds Doc, who was evidently not a mere dentist but an M.D. and Ph.D fresh over from the University of Vienna and his residency under Herr Doktor Freud.

Actually, Holliday and Ringo (first conceived as antagonists in John Sturges's "Gunfight at OK Corral," with Kirk Douglas and John Ireland in the roles) are the main hoots of the film. Kilmer especially has a high old time. He plays Doc not as the consumptive, embittered alcoholic but as a kind of ironic, poetic boulevardier, with drop-dead comedy timing and a golden boy's fascination for the flame. With his rolling, Virginia aristo accent, he's more like a gallant young poet-officer heading out to the Western Front to kick the ball at the Hun while making merry quips.

Biehn's Ringo is a wild boy, with piercing eyes, world-class grace and the same nihilistic fire burning within. When he and Doc finally face off for the big gundown, it's one of the movie's few genuinely felt moments.

The rest is pretty much wreckage. "Tombstone" uses good actors promiscuously; it has a brilliant cast, much underused. There's Stephen Lang doing a Gabby Hayes imitation as Ike Clanton. Powers Boothe dandies up his impersonation of Curly Bill Brocious to an alarming extent, as if he's afraid no one will notice him; Bill Paxton is sadly meek as Morgan, youngest of the Earps; Billy Zane has an incomprehensible turn as a kind proto-Brando who wanders among the shooters offering tragic profiles and meaningless sighs; Dana Delany is from the wrong planet; Jason Priestly is negligible; and Robert Burke (he was "RoboCop 3") so low-profile I didn't even figure out who he was.

The gun violence is equally all over the map. For example, the famous corral shootout is pretty accurately re-created (at the halfway, rather than climactic, point). It was men in a space about as large as a rowhouse's back yard shooting at each other without bothering to take cover. Maybe a total 30 shots; maybe a total of 10 seconds.

But then it becomes an Italian revenge job, and the blood and thunder inflates to operatic dimension, becoming not more dramatic but more ludicrous. Ford would have thrown up.

"Tombstone"

Starring Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer

Directed by George Cosmatos

Released by Hollywood Pictures

R

** 1/2

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