Review: “Tombstone” (1993)

August 28, 2008

“You gonna do somethin’, or are you just gonna stand there and bleed?”

That quote, delivered with borderline disgust by Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp, sums up the theme of “Tombstone.” What do you do in the face of danger? Do you stand, mouth agape, or do you take a swing?

“Tombstone” looks at that question from the point-of-view of a retired Wyatt Earp. Wyatt and his brothers, Virgil [Sam Elliott] and Morgan [Bill Paxton], settle into Tombstone, Arizona planning to live out their lives as businessmen. They happen along Doc Holiday [Val Kilmer], and if you don’t know what happens next, you need to go take a history course.

“Tombstone” is not a film about surprises. If you have any prior knowledge of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holiday, or the OK Corral, you know what’s coming. But it’s not about what’s coming that matters; it’s the character of the men trying to get there.

Kurt Russell gives a layered performance as Wyatt Earp. He paints a picture of a man caught between having a regular life and doing what he feels is right. He’s confused and conflicted, and Russell’s performance is well-executed and wonderfully carried. I say this not only to brag, but to make clear Russell’s talents in the role are considerable, and that the scene-stealing I’m about to mention was no simple feat.

Most of the scene-stealing comes from Val Kilmer’s Doc Holiday. Kilmer doesn’t chew scenery or push himself into shots; the eye-catching part of his performance comes from his complete disappearance into his role. Kilmer slides into a honeyed drawl and waxed moustache and vanishes. All that’s left is Doc Holiday, all-around scoundrel and charming devil.

What scenes Kilmer does not charm into his pocket find their way to Sam Elliott, possibly the best modern-day cowboy Hollywood has to offer. From his bristly mustache, to his rumbling baritone, all the way down to his boots, it feels like Elliott simply showed up on set to see what was happening and stuck around because it was a western. He’s gruff and stubborn, and he makes you believe in the type of lawmen the Earps’ have always been rumored to be. There are very few actors still working who seem to have fallen from the westerns of the 30s, 40s, and 50s, and “Tombstone” did well to catch Sam Elliott to play Virgil.

The supporting cast for “Tombstone” is a who’s who of “Yeah, that guys”, including Powers Booth, Michael Biehn, John Corbett, Thomas Hayden Church, and Jason Priestley. Priestley’s performance is probably the most interesting simply because once you recognize who he is, you can’t believe it’s the same guy who came from “Beverly Hills: 90210”.

“Tombstone” doesn’t end at the OK Corral, as previous interpretations of Earp have. “Tombstone” stretches out into the aftermath, using true accounts of the bloodshed that followed to show Wyatt Earp not as a legendary hero of the West, but as a full-fleshed man with decisions to make and consequences to handle. It’s a movie based on truth, as much as legends can be, and it’s the truth that gives “Tombstone” a depth and emotion that’s never been granted Earp before.

The legend of Earp is a story which needs no embellishment to be entertaining and spell-binding. The story of Wyatt Earp, the man, has to show those moments of legend and put them together to showcase a man who didn’t just walk in and start shooting; sometimes he had to be dragged. That is what “Tombstone” is; the moments in between Wyatt Earp’s famous feats, and how a man became a legend.



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