starring Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer, Michael Biehn, Charlton Heston
screenplay by Kevin Jarre
directed by George P. Cosmatos
by Jefferson Robbins Achingly traditionalist, with an overstuffed cast, George P. Cosmatos's Tombstone is badly-served by its Old Hollywood instincts. Riding forth during one of those cyclical revivals the western seems to endure every decade, it had the bad fortune to eat the dust of Unforgiven. Clint Eastwood's dolorous drama, concerned to its core with the cost of bloodshed, was a case of an icon reminding us of what Anthony Mann did so well. In Tombstone, Cosmatos (he of Rambo: First Blood Part II fame, remember*) was handed essentially the same opportunity, but he decided he'd rather be Henry Hathaway.
That is to say, Wyatt Earp is a bully and an asshole, out for himself and his kin, happy to coast on his reputation and enrich himself at the expense of the weak. The problem is, he's also Kurt Russell. The star is good at either end of the spectrum--"goofball raconteur" over here and "liver-eating badass" over there--but the intervening transit is fraught. There's discord between what the character demands as written, how easily Russell defaults to earnestness in the clutch, and whether Cosmatos even wants to make a "conflicted antihero" movie in the first place. His choices strain for the widescreen epic, always, and there's not much moral grit to get stuck in your eye. The only thing separating the heroes from the villains of this piece is that the heroes aren't sweaty, unshaven, wild-eyed, gloweringly lit, or scored in a minor key...but in cinema, that counts for a lot. The visual lexicon overwrites Kevin Jarre's script.
The director has some luxury in falling back on Kilmer, though, as the gunman/gambler with no illusions. Unlike Earp, the tubercular Holliday knows he's damned, and Kilmer's chewy, louche performance lets him carry any inherent weight of the piece practically alone. When Earp finally crosses over to the dark side to quench the depredations of an untouchable frontier gang, the "Cowboys," Holliday is already there waiting for him. It's how Earp makes that crossing that palls: staggering Lear-like into a thunderstorm, literal blood on his hands all the way to the elbow. It's an exorbitant, operatic gesture...starring Kurt Russell. The peripheral players fare better, particularly Michael Biehn as outlaw Johnny Ringo, Holliday's opposite number, sick in his soul rather than in his lungs. Ringo's final match with Holliday circles closest to Anthony Mann country, arguing that murder makes mewling beasts of the most erudite men. And then Kurt Russell gets to fuck Dana Delaney.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
I didn't realize it until this Blu-ray came along, but I've been nostalgic for the Hollywood Pictures logo. Pity about the 2.35:1, 1080p transfer that follows it. Cosmatos is interested in playing with shadows--witness the Earp brothers' black suits versus the Cowboys' motley, or an opium-den scene in which zonked heavy Burly Bill Brocius (Powers Boothe, he and bit player Paula Malcolm carrying the seeds of "Deadwood") rises from a cot to have his head engulfed in a patch of darkness. But the darkness engulfs everything on this disc. The blacks look like the bottom of the Mariana Trench at midnight during a total eclipse. The underbrim of Holliday's hat is the void. Not until you watch the special feature on costuming do you realize the Earps' outfits actually have goddamn pinstripes. There's also noise in the tans and fleshtones, while intermittent edge-enhancement adds only an electronic sheen to fine detail. The picture on the whole is little better than a well-upconverted DVD, a crippling blow to the film's collectability on Blu-ray. The 5.1 soundmix, presented in DTS-HD MA, is even as far as Bruce Broughton's unnecessarily Copland-ish score but frontloaded for F/X, arbitrarily nodding to the rear from time to time. A horse charge pounds towards the camera and the back channels light up; a window breaks behind the Earps and they don't.
Extra feature "The Making of Tombstone" (27 mins.) subdivides into three parts concerned with the ensemble cast ("Eighty-five speaking parts!" the late Cosmatos crows, making me wonder if he counted Jason Priestley); the production design, costuming, and on-location shooting; and the O.K. Corral gunfight at the centre of the Earp legend. It's in standard definition, like all the film-specific supplements. Production designer Catherine Hardwicke's sterling work in recreating Tombstone is today obscured by the Twilight curse; let us remember her better years. Many of the actors praise the script for its ambiguities of character, which, as noted, mostly failed to arrive onscreen. Cosmatos's storyboards for the O.K. Corral shootout are on board in a four-minute sequence, set to Broughton's music and just as exciting as any western comic book--the man could draw. There's a passel of Tombstone trailers and TV spots, too, while HD trailers for Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and When In Rome spin up on loading. A HiDef preview for Surrogates is tucked into the menus. Originally published: October 14, 2010.
*Editor's Note: According to this interview with Kurt Russell conducted not long after the 2005 death of George P. Cosmatos, Russell himself directed Tombstone through a perfectly compliant Cosmatos, who was only a front man to appease the insurance companies after the firing of original director Kevin Jarre. What a tumultuous production! return