I remember many years ago before Gene Siskel died where he and his co-host Roger Ebert were mulling the success of “Tombstone” and explained that originally “Tombstone” was not screened for critics. Usually when a movie is not screened early for critics it means the studios have no faith in their film. So what they did was not screen “Tombstone” while they screened “Wyatt Earp” pegging the latter for big success while the former they expected to come and go. The two films arrived in theaters in practically the same time. “Tombstone” became an instant Western classic while “Wyatt Earp” remained a not as widely accepted Western drama in spite of still being generally respected by movie critics around the world starring Oscar bait Kevin Costner. Let’s be honest here though, the reason why “Tombstone” is such a widely revered Western classic is because it’s a pretty stylized and embellished Western actioner.
That’s not to say it holds little value beyond that, but it’s the truth. Nevertheless if you’re a big fan of action films and Westerns that possess an actual story, you’ll love “Tombstone” as much as I do and have since its initial release. “Tombstone” gets major points not just because it stars the one and only Snake Plissken as its core character Wyatt Earp (a retired gunfighter just seeking some peace who can not avoid violence no matter where he turns), but it also acts as a brilliant homage to the Western genre featuring an excellent cameo by Charlton Heston as a crusty matriarch who takes in a very sick Doc Holiday, and the opening sequence is narrated by genre veteran Robert Mitchum. This is a bonafide love letter to the genre (featuring appearances by Billy Zane, Michael Rooker, Powers Boothe, Billy Bob Thorton, and Stephen Lang respectively) and it’s almost impossible to dislike. Wyatt Earp is now a reformed crook who happens on Tombstone with his brother Morgan and friend Virgil prepared to live life as a working class Joe.
But that all changes when a series of events involving the local Clampett gang forces Virgil and Morgan to take up the duties of lawmen in the town. Before long people begin to die, bitter alliances are formed, and Earp is yanked back in to a world of bloodshed and gun smoke before his very eyes. Director George P. Cosmatos’s Western thriller possesses one of the best casts in the genre with Kurt Russell fiercely mugging it as Wyatt (this conflicted desperate individual whose own life has come back to bite him in the backside), Sam Elliott as the wise Virgil, Bill Paxton as the misguided Morgan, and the one and only Val Kilmer who plays the cocky gambler Doc Holiday. Holiday is sewn from the same cloth as Wyatt except is intent on dying by the sword as he suffers a slow and painful death by the clutches of Tuberculosis.
Spending his nights gambling, partying, and drinking, he finds a rare friend in Wyatt sympathizing with his gripping situation and eventually stepping in to settle this rising tension that could mean the deaths of many unless he intervenes and aides his friends in battle. Val Kilmer is at his best here and steals the spotlight (which is shocking considering Kurt Russell is always a show stopper) as this smug gun fighter who revels in blasting people away if it means being able to defend Wyatt–even though he’s too proud to reveal his vulnerability until the very end. As the tension rises and rises, Wyatt finds himself on the field again with his guns in tow in possibly one of the greatest on-screen shoot outs of all time. To this day I can’t see the gunfight at the O.K. Corral without garnering goosebumps or grins of excitement because the sharp editing, matched with Cosmatos’s excellent direction, along with the epic line from Wyatt in a realization that there will be blood: “Oh my god…” sets in motion a truly incredible sequence.
But aside from the action this is a competent character piece exploring the increasing age and obvious mortality of Earp who has to resort to murder again to settle this brutal war and inevitably face off against the lethal Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn at his top and most despicable), the only man Wyatt fears because of his advantage in youth, skill, speed as a gun fighter, and willingness to die if it means getting his point across about Wyatt’s obvious reluctance to face him down. Like “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” Cosmatos’ underdog Western film is at its core about the end of the Western era more than a movie about cowboys and guns and it’s a spectacular ensemble piece you have to see. And if you have, see it again.
The downfall that prevents “Tombstone” from achieving pure perfection is Wyatt’s sub-plot with singer Josephine, a series of meandering and soapy romance sequences that completely drive down the energy and pacing of the film bringing the narrative to a screeching halt more times than not. I appreciate the writer Kevin Jarre’s attempts to explore this little love story as Wyatt’s vain attempt to grasp on to something solid in his life that’s pure and utterly stable, the romance with Delany’s character and their frolicking through fields and pitching woo just completely destroys the films overall tension and suspense and never quite amounts to anything when the film comes to a close in the end. It’s a shame to see Earp’s relationship with Josephine completely mar an otherwise interesting and complex character. In spite of the lame romance sub-plot that completely ruins any and all tension and pacing in the total narrative, “Tombstone” is a spectacular and well acted bit of Western cinema and sadly one in an endangered genre species that deserves to be revived.