I was speaking with one of my sons the other day, and he made a Tombstone reference. I confessed that I hadn’t seen the film, and he humorously dropped his phone and generally expressed his horror and disappointment. The gauntlet was thrown down. So I got a good copy through my local library and finally saw it.
To say I have mixed feelings about it isn’t just a euphemism. I half enjoyed it as a good-looking, generally well-acted film that was working to be historically accurate. It had all the action one would expect from a Western, as well as the stunning vistas, fist fights, gambling, and drinking that we all look forward to. The film has something of an epic feel, and it generally balances the lives of more characters than you would have thought. For a good half of the film (and by that I mean bits and pieces that make up one half of the film throughout), it’s energetic, engaging, and fun.
But there are lines that can make you howl with laughter, either as written or as spoken; these are not the memorable ones, but are just clichéd lines that are part of normal conversation. Yet more often than not, lines that could have been howlers are delivered with such conviction or finesse that we buy into them: (Earp) “You gonna do something…or just stand there and bleed?” Or (Earp again) “You tell ‘em I’m comin’ and hell’s comin’ with me!”
Beyond the occasionally questionable dialogue, there are almost laughable images (accompanied by music of equal laughability) of gangs walking toward the camera or bounding over the hills, and townsfolks acting like buffoons. And then there is the direction. Kevin Jarre, who wrote the script, was set to direct this, his first as director. But he was soon replaced by the more experienced George Cosmatos, who had previously directed Rambo: First Blood Part II (one of the great film names), Cobra, and Leviathan right before directing Tombstone. Kurt Russell, who plays Wyatt Earp and is essentially the film’s lead, claims, with some support by Val Kilmer (Doc Holliday), that he directed the film from that point on, pointing to Cosmatos as more of an organizer of the many production details. This may explain the film’s lack of a center, either in terms of drama or character, and its feeling of occasionally meandering rather than moving forward.
Yet…yet, it’s worth visiting. Except for the lead female role, it’s well cast and well-acted, and in one case, has a performance for the ages. That and the realism of the costumes and sets and the beauty of the backdrops make it close to a flawed classic. Kurt Russell owns the film, and provides his usual level of male authority to the character. It’s not on the level of a Russell Crowe or an Idris Elba, but there isn’t another male character in the film that has what Russell is projecting, and his mid-level strength and intensity help his Wyatt Earp blend in well with the rest of the large cast. That cast includes a roll call of up-and-coming actors as well as stars: Sam Elliott, Bill Paxton (only OK), Powers Boothe, Michael Biehn, Jason Priestly, Jon Tenney, Thomas Haden Church, Billy Zane (not bad), John Corbett, Billy Bob Thornton, Stephen Lang, Michael Rooker, and (spoiler alert) even Charlton Heston in a surprise appearance toward the end. If Russell is even partly responsible for the level of good acting here, it’s to his credit.
Female lead Dana Delaney had just finished a successful and award-winning run on TV’s “China Beach.” There she found her character and lived it. Here she does neither and is more of a distraction than attraction. It’s not really an underwritten part, but she apparently wasn’t able to do much with it.
The best part of the film by far, however, is Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday. His great lines are many, and could easily have come off as risible one-liners. But unlike Delaney, Kilmer finds his character and stays there throughout, turning every quotable line into something both revealing and entertaining. He’s smart, funny, and then, finally, touchingly serious. It’s easily the strongest part of the film, and could have imbalanced it. But Kilmer stays connected, as does his character, so he continually keeps his place in the film while still acting everyone else off the screen. Westerns don’t traditionally present Best Actor possibilities, but Kilmer, even in a great acting year, could justifiably been nominated. But in any event, that performance is here to provide innumerable quotes (“You’re a daisy if you do,” “I’m your Huckleberry,” “Does that mean we’re not friends anymore?”, “It appears we must redefine the nature of our association,” “My hypocrisy only goes so far” and too many others to list) and a completely watchable character for everyone to enjoy. For those more acquainted with his film failures and personal difficulties, it’s both a revelation and a sobering reminder that great performances don’t always translate into great careers.
Tombstone has become something of a classic, though it will never be considered a great film. Its reputation may be due to the subject matter, the stirring action, and the stunning scenery, or it may be because of the numerous quotable lines. Come for the story and the action, stay for the lines and Kilmer’s performance.