**½/**** Image A+ Sound A+ Extras D
starring Kevin Costner, Dennis Quaid, Gene Hackman, Jeff Fahey
screenplay by Dan Gordon and Lawrence Kasdan
directed by Lawrence Kasdan
by Walter Chaw It seemed like a good idea at the time: Kevin Costner--still a hot commodity just four years removed from Dances with Wolves, fresh from what might be the most important film of his career (A Perfect World), and not yet stigmatized by Waterworld--reteaming with his Silverado director Lawrence Kasdan, then one of the best genre writers in Hollywood, for a biopic of the famous lawman Wyatt Earp. Unfortunately, Wyatt Earp flopped like Kurt Rambis in the paint. It was too long, too prosaic, and in what appears in retrospect to be a pathological lack of pretense, too pretentious by half. It was the first real nail in Costner's career coffin--a product of his having way too much power and way too little savvy in a cynical America that had outgrown his kind of aw-shucks long about Gary Cooper. Costner's still shouting, but it's hard to hear him from all the way back there in 1940.
Costner is a curious case. I used to hate him for what I perceived to be his arrogance--now I kind of like him for what I perceive to be his stubbornness. In a similar way, I used to enjoy saying that Wyatt Earp was the longest three days I ever spent watching a film, whereas now I sort of admire it. Either the picture's gotten less boring in ten years, or I've gotten more boring. Whatever the case, it and Costner's recent Open Range speak to a sort of refreshingly old-fashioned instinct in filmmaking where honesty and conviction were valued commodities rather than quaintly outmoded ones. Indeed, the one thing you can't accuse Costner of is being ironic and post-modern: His films aren't self-critiquing--he's trying to save the world one movie at a time. It's not a product of arrogance and pretense so much as a product of mule-stubbornness and slow-wittedness. He's so square that he's almost hip again.
Taking a second look at Wyatt Earp a decade after its brief theatrical run reveals a deeply flawed film, yet one that also evokes the epic westerns of John Ford and Howard Hawks--although it's neither as monumental as Ford nor as stridently individualistic as Hawks. The cinematography by Owen Roizman is extraordinary, a prologue shot primarily in an impossibly verdant cornfield the kind of rapturous stuff that M. Night Shyamalan would like you to think he invented. Stop the film on any single frame and you'd think you were looking at a Frederic Remington painting; it's showcase material, especially in its original Panavision aspect ratio.
The story was a personal passion of Costner's, and it's not a stretch to see the attraction. Earp was a terrible businessman swallowed whole by the romance of the West and an inconstant lover who nevertheless found strength in his family and the violent enforcement of his strict system of belief. The picture begins with Earp as a child and progresses through old age, ending about forty minutes after the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, the one event in Earp's life that probably means anything to anyone outside of Costner. A three-hour-plus labour of love (and longer still when it came out on LaserDisc), it has the feeling not so much of a documentary as of a home movie: the kind of thing that you fear Uncle Kevin will pull out of the closet and project against the side of a kitchen wall. Better this than The Postman, though.
A compelling reason to watch Wyatt Earp is its exceptional supporting cast: Tom Sizemore as Bat Masterson and doppelgänger Michael Madsen (two years post-Reservoir Dogs) as Wyatt's brother Virgil; Gene Hackman as Earp patriarch Nicholas and Bill Pullman as affable Ed Masterson; tragically miscast Catherine O'Hara as the long-suffering wife of one of the Earp sibs; and Isabella Rossellini as whore Big Nose Kate, the loyal companion of the frail and tubercular Doc Holliday, exceptionally played by Dennis Quaid. Jim Caviezel makes a late appearance, personal fave Alison Elliott makes a too-brief appearance, and Mare Winningham makes her mark as Earp's laudanum-addicted wife. There's a lot of room for these performers to stretch, and if there's one strength to the film besides its cinematography (and Kasdan should get a nod for his workmanlike direction as well), it's the degree to which all of the huge cast is distinct from one another while making sense in the fabric of Earp's story. It's a balancing act for sure; if pace gets lost somewhere along the way, that's a sacrifice I seem more willing to make now than I did before.
Still, the fact remains that Wyatt Earp would have been better as a mini-series on the History Channel. It's lovely and there's a conviction to it that won me over eventually, but without a break, the picture begins to drone. If it reveals a certain truth to the idea of cycles as the action in Earp's life rises and falls with deadening regularity, it also reveals that Costner is almost unique now in continuing to do films that he believes in, no matter how simplistic that belief might be. I truly feel that he's in it to leave a legacy, not for the money. In his fumbling, easy-to-mock way, damned if he hasn't done it.
Perhaps to commemorate its tenth year of existence, Warner releases Wyatt Earp on DVD in a Two-Disc Special Edition that, at least in terms of its new digital transfer, is special indeed. I don't honestly know, all hyperbole at the ready, that I've ever seen a better-looking transfer. Its stated 2.35:1 anamorphic image (which seems closer to 2.40:1) is astonishing--eye-stabbingly astonishing. The film itself is split between its two discs--to allow for a less compromised bitrate, no doubt--and the results are frankly orgasmic. Greens especially, and water...I'm sort of speechless. It'll be the disc I pop in the next time I want to convert someone to the format.
A booming DD 5.1 soundmix augments the video transfer nicely, providing thundering hoof-beats from every channel (especially in a booming fireworks display and a buffalo migration), while the too-close gunfight at the O.K. Corral comes through with scary fidelity. Turn it up: the crowd scenes in its various saloon encounters by themselves cement the DVD's status as required background-noise at The Lonely Guy's cocktail parties. The Chinese have a term for it that means "hot and noisy"--yep. Where the disc fails is in its pimping of a "New Behind-the-Scenes Documentary: It Happened That Way" (14 mins.) that might very well be newly-compiled but features almost no fresh material. Not unless cast and crew decided to dig their costumes out of mothballs, rebuild Wyatt Earp's sets, and conduct their 2004 interviews thus clad and situated. It's deeply dishonest and deeply disinteresting--almost in equal draught.
The source for many of the on-set puff pieces is here, too, in "Wyatt Earp: Walk with a Legend" (22 mins), a 1994 television special that spends a lot of time showing clips from "other" classic epics like Spartacus and Ben-Hur (including an interview with Charlton Heston, of all people) before trying speciously to connect them and Wyatt Earp. Come to think of it, not so specious after all: Wyatt Earp is no worse than the Heston Ben-Hur, even if it does miss a signature action sequence. Eleven deleted scenes, each remastered though not anamorphically, are excellent in the same sincere, prosaic way as the rest of the film--though I didn't miss them during the film, I don't mind them in this form. Watch them separately or "Play All." A trailer rounds out the presentation. Originally published: July 27, 2004.