Film review: Tombstone

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 28 1993 12:00 a.m. MST

There's no real reason to cinematically retell the story of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, unless it is to inject some historical accuracy into the story, which is lacking in the mythological, romantic versions of the past.

There have already been at least a dozen films on the subject, most prominently John Ford's 1946 classic "My Darling Clementine" and two by John Sturges, before-and-after yarns filmed a decade apart, "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" (1957) and "Hour of the Gun" (1967). (If that's not enough, there's also another on the way for next summer — "Wyatt Earp," starring Kevin Costner.)

But here it is anyway, "Tombstone," which apparently wants to make history by giving us history. And up to and including the O.K. Corral showdown, it succeeds pretty well.

After that centerpiece, however, the film slips into its own somewhat romanticized, albeit gruesome revisionist material, as if the first half of the movie wants to be entertaining fun, while the second half wants to be "Unforgiven."

Kurt Russell stars as Wyatt Earp, and he's surprisingly effective in the film's central role. In fact, his is arguably the one character here that is given any depth or dimension.

The story focuses on Wyatt after he has retired as sheriff of Dodge City, traveling to Tombstone with his brothers Virgil (Sam Elliott) and Morgan (Bill Paxton) and their wives to settle down, play poker and maybe open a saloon. It isn't long, however, before the evil, lawless Clanton clan forces Wyatt and his brothers to put on badges once again, leading to the inevitable showdown.

Thrown into the mix are Wyatt's opium-addicted wife (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson) and a traveling actress (Dana Delany) to whom he is attracted. This subplot, however, is the film's weakest link, with Delany woefully miscast and displaying no chemistry whatsoever with Russell.

The villains here, led by Powers Boothe as Curly Bill, Michael Biehn as Johnny Ringo and Stephen Lang as Ike Clanton, are all one-dimensional, hissing bad guys, though Lang does have a few moments where he tries to bring more to the role.

In fact, aside from Russell and Val Kilmer's scene-stealing, sickly, alcoholic Doc Holliday, there are so many characters coming and going, with none of them receiving adequate screen time, that it becomes difficult to keep track of them all.

It is also apparent that director George P. Cosmatos ("Rambo," "Cobra") is more interested in action and blood-letting than character development . . . and that he has perhaps seen a few too many Sergio Leone Westerns, with his penchant for closeups and grit.

That is especially sad, considering all the wonderful on-screen talent he has cast in the film's many supporting roles.

Still, there are some very entertaining moments here, with Russell spouting memorable tough-guy lines, as when he slaps a villain and says: "Well, are you going to do something, or are you just going to stand there and bleed?" Or this remark by Delany: "I try to be good but it's just so boring."

Taken on its own terms, with some lowered expectations, Western fans will have fun.

Or, maybe you should simply rent "My Darling Clementine." Or "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral." Or . . . .

"Tombstone" is rated R for considerable violence, along with some profanity, vulgar language, drug abuse and implied sex.