Capitalizing on the post-Unforgiven western revival, Buena Vista's 1993 retelling of the old west's most famous showdown ended up going head-to-head with Lawrence Kasden's botched attempt at epic – Kevin Costner vehicle Wyatt Earp – and handily won out both critically and commercially, and it isn't hard to see why. Where as Kasdan took the broad view in delivering an overlong, labored, torturously uneventful biopic of sorts, Tombstone is simply put a Disneyfied western. It's the Cliff's Notes of the legendary lawman, rigidly interpreted to a strict moral code – inconvenient truths be damned – and imbued with a certain sheen and polish that belies the period and the setting. Tombstone is to the western what First Knight is to swords and sorcery.
That's not to say it isn't any good, as it's brilliantly entertaining, just that it epitomizes a certain kind of storytelling that fans of the more cynical Spaghetti Westerns will find hard to swallow. The good guys are clean-cut and upstanding, the bad guys all unshaven, smelly drunkards. Conflict ensues, will is tested, and in the end good and right win the day. Jumping right in Tombstone skips the formative years and picks up with Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell) – his renowned reputation preceding him – arriving in town with his brothers Morgan (Bill Paxton) and Virgil (Sam Elliot) with a view of settling as a family.
Milking the Arizona boom-town as proprietors of a gambling joint their collective conscience is stirred by the brutal murder of the town sheriff at the hands of a vicious gang of thugs known as 'The Cowboys.' Unable to stomach this injustice the Earps and their allies, chief among them Wyatt's old friend Doc Holiday (Val Kilmer), stand together in an effort to restore law and order to the streets of Tombstone, triggering an escalation of violence that culminates in the fabled Gunfight at the Ok Corrall and the subsequent 'Earp Vendetta Ride.'
Despite numerous historical sources that have disputed both the way that the Ok corrall shootout went down and the Earp's flawless character, this is about as black and white an interpretation of ambiguity as you will ever find. What saves it from simply hardening into a fine piece of Mouse House cheddar are the performances from a cast list boasting one solid character actor after another. Bill Paxton and Sam Elliot are in fine form as the naive younger brother and sage eldest, respectively. Powers Booth and Michael Biehn both terrific, the former as the flamboyant Curley Bill and the latter playing his psychotic, twitchy number two, Johnny Ringo. Elsewhere Dana Delany, Stephen Lang, and Billy Zane all turn in suitably reliable turns. Of course the film belongs to Val Kilmer who in a career best performances as the mercurial Doc Holiday, imbues the gaunt gunslinger, dying a slow death of tuberculosis, with a sardonic wit that simply mesmerizes.
As a whole Tombstone stands as a fascinating reconciliation of a murky, bloodied history, ably reflecting America's own rose-tinted recollection of the disappeared frontier, soothed ironically by a century of westerns not unlike this one. On the one hand the who, what, where, when, how, and why are all fastidiously tended to, right down to Doc Holiday unintentionally igniting violence with a seemingly innocuous gesture. On the other, the massive failings of frontier law don't even get a look in (Earp's posse killed many while riding under a warrant for the arrest of a single man). but that's a minor quibble, really. After all this is about the myth and the legend of Wyatt Earp and his immortals, arguably the most oft-retold tale of the old west, and as the great John Ford so had proclaimed: "When the legend becomes the truth, print the legend."
Blu-ray Special Features:
A brief making-of featurette, some trailers and TV spots, and the director's original storyboards.
Starring: Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer, Sam Elliot, Bill Paxton, Powers Booth, Michael
Biehn, Dana Delany, Bill Zane, Stephen Lang
Director: George P. Cosmatos
Runtime: 130 Minutes