The ensemble of 1993's "Tombstone."

Tombstone February 18, 2021


ombstone (1993) isn’t lifeless, exactly. But this handsome-looking Western from George P. Cosmatos (1986’s Cobra) so ultracompetently regurgitates the aesthetics and ideas of classic Westerns without coming up with a personality of its own that I took it in as a just-fine carbon copy of a certain sensibility — John Ford by way of Sergio Leone. Set in 1879, the film gets going when Wyatt

Earp (Kurt Russell), a respected ex-lawman who made his name in Kansas, travels with his brothers, Virgil and Morgan (Sam Elliott and Bill Paxton), and their wives to the title Arizona town to start anew. Wyatt doesn’t entirely know what he’s looking for there. When one character asks him in the middle of the movie with philosophical aplomb what he wants out of life, he says unconfidently that he wants to make money and have some children with his wife (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson).

Any semblance of the peaceful second act Wyatt was hoping for is quickly stamped on with spurred boots in Tombstone. It turns out that the Cowboys, an outlaw gang with scarlet-red sashes hugging their biceps, have the town in a stranglehold — and their dominance is spreading nationally. Led by Curly Bill Brocius and Johnny Ringo (Powers Boothe and Michael Biehn), this syndicate is so well-systematized that, today, it is considered one of the earliest American examples of an organized crime unit. (Tombstone is an expectedly embellished true story.)


The Earps first get a taste of this faction’s ascendence when, while attending a show one evening, one overeager Cowboy audience member (John Corbett) can’t restrain himself from shooting at the pretty-boy stage performer (Billy Zane) after he’s only gotten a couple of notes out. The Cowboys won’t even let easy escapism go by without leaving a mark. Later, Brocius, who suggests a tamer Captain Hook (his mustache is especially curled at its edges, and he adores vibrant red button-downs and floral ascots), unceremoniously guns down the town marshal in the street one evening. We knew to fear the Cowboys from the beginning. Tombstone’s prologue looks on in horror as members carry out a retributive murder at a wedding. When a brave priest warns the criminals at the end of the sequence that soon four horsemen will be coming to make things right, we wonder who he’s referring to. Eventually we'll figure it out. 


Tombstone is first a Western about Wyatt reluctantly coming out of retirement to help bring some order back to the town. Ensuing action sequences are serviceably exciting. When county sheriff John Behan (Jon Tenney) tries to lock up Wyatt and co. after one particularly noisy attempt to quiet the Cowboys down, Wyatt shrugs. He’s obliquely appointed himself Tombstone’s chief peacekeeper when he coolly says to Behan, “I don’t think I’ll let you arrest us today.” But after some of the Cowboys’ chaos-making gets personal, the movie evolves into a revenge film, where the Earps storm through various landscapes and immediately gun down anyone with so much as a splash of red daubing an upper limb. “It’s not revenge he’s after,” one character observes of Wyatt. “It’s a reckoning.” Once the movie settles into the aftermath of this genre pivot, at least you can sense the ambivalence skulking between the lines of Kevin Jarre’s script. Is the law really a force for good when its mowing-down is as gleeful and callous as the kind practiced by their criminal enemies? (The movie thrillingly dramatizes the 30-second O.K. Corral gunfight of 1881 — an Earp-Cowboy showdown that left this gun-toting band of brothers, blood splatter from bullet grazes aside, basically intact.)


Tombstone is unnecessarily long at north of two hours. And none of the performances, except for Boothe as a deliciously impish foe and Dana Delany as Wyatt’s liberated adulterous love interest (a role Maureen O’Hara would have killed it in in the 1950s), have any tang. Russell is capable but almost sandpapered-down as this no-nonsense braveheart. Particularly in his collaborations with John Carpenter, Russell feels most in situ as an action hero who feels in on the joke. As the earnest, selectively morally upstanding Wyatt Earp, he’s tamed into a conventionally courageous Western hero, and he can't maintain much of a spark.


Elliott and Paxton don’t get to do anything interesting; they don’t even have enough to make something out of little. Why cast these prominent actors in the movie at all? (Though, to be fair, the ensemble hosts a surplus of big names in minuscule parts; you do a lot of double-taking, and wonder if Cosmatos had money to burn, actors who owed him favors, or a little bit of both.) These wafer-thin characterizations make it so these otherwise charismatic actors are often in scenes and made about as forgettably decorative as a room’s share of smoke and sweat. (But in a movie where not a man walks by without a mustache shimmying above his lips, Elliott would at least certainly win an impromptu best-mustache competition on a particularly slow day on set — I'd say that counts for something.) 


As the philosophical, tuberculosis-infected ally Doc Holliday, Val Kilmer tries for a knowing deadpan-funny acting style. He’s the movie’s equivalent of a high school’s “class wit” superlative-award winner — or an Oscar Wilde on the frontier — only he knows his way around words as well as he does his trademark twin pistols. But Kilmer has a certain stoicism that makes you forget sometimes that what he’s saying is supposed to prompt a chuckle. He feels misplaced. I sometimes envisioned Russell in the part (his comedic timing is sharper) and wondered what might have been. Then another shoot-em-up would distract me. Tombstone isn’t interested in making genre conventions feel new again; we find comfort in its familiarity if we can’t any real freshness — a sensation I wasn’t that bothered by. B-