Tombstone (1993) Movie Retro Review by John Walsh

Directors: George P. Cosmatos, Kevin Jarre
Writer: Kevin Jarre
Stars: Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer, Sam Elliott

Right, so I’ve admitted before that I’m a massive fan of the western genre, particularly the spaghetti western trilogy, and yet somehow I managed to miss Tombstone (1993). How the hell did that happen? That’s the burning question which has etched itself into my mind since I watched it a few days ago. This film literally (not literally) blew my mind with how good it actually is. It’s just phenomenally well written with an excellent cast of actors/actresses.

What I enjoyed the most about it, besides the memorable and infinitely quotable dialogue or the bursts of wild action, was in my mind at least the trio of arcs that ran synchronously throughout. First of all, you have Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell), facing an existential crisis after hanging up his deputy sheriff badge and seeking out a new life in the silver rush town of Tombstone with his brothers, Virgil (Sam Elliott) and Morgan (Bill Paxton). Secondly, you have the side arc involving Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer), the dance with death he has with both tuberculosis, the Clanton led cowboys and Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn) in particular. And finally, the wider arc which inevitably pits the brothers and Holliday against the cowboys within Tombstone and further afield.

George P. Cosmatos and Kevin Jarre deserve immense credit for the ease in which this all occurs organically and simultaneously, with each arc being given its fair share of attention, development and ultimately brought to a satisfying conclusion. It was nice coming from watching Fury, a film I criticised for having an unmemorable story and poorly developed, 2D characters, to this. This was the complete antithesis of that and I was engrossed in this story and emotionally invested in the Earp brothers and Holliday from start to finish. Speaking of the story, I’ll try to summarise it in a way that doesn’t spoil anything for a person that might’ve not seen the film already, although I’m fully aware that having been released nearly 25 years ago, that’s sure to be a niche market indeed.

In short, this film is primarily about Wyatt Earp’s journey. It begins with his departure from a distinguished law enforcement career as a deputy sheriff and his attempt to find a more enjoyable and financially prosperous life with his brothers. Life is very rarely that simple however and with a disinterested, opium addicted wife and the town of Tombstone packed with low life outlaws, cowboys and a spineless sheriff, it’s not long before trouble begins to brew. Amongst this is the alluring figure of Josephine Marcus (Dana Delany), whose continued presence throughout and free-spirited ideology on life quickly leaves Wyatt spellbound. He finds himself torn between his old life, when his two brothers become marshals, resolving to help in dealing with the outlaws, and the preferable, potentially fresh start with Josephine.

That is what the film is supposed to be primarily about. Mr. Val Kilmer has something to say about that and some, however. What can I say about this mans performance in the film? Just wow. Firstly, I find it absolutely astonishing that he never one an oscar for this portrayal. A portrayal which most people familiar with the history of the real Doc Holliday seem to agree is the most faithful interpretation to date. From his characters memorable, often drunken, delivery of the dialogue (“I’m your huckleberry” is now in my mind forever more), imbued with an authentic southern drawl in all to his scarily, genuinely realistic portrayal of a man dying with tuberculosis. He provides laughs, action and steals the show from everyone else in the film. It’s easily one of the best acting performances I’ve seen in a long, long time.

That’s not to say the rest aren’t decent either, they damn well are. Indeed, there’s a quite few very good performances. Stephen Lang, Dana Delany, Bill Paxton, Sam Elliott and Powers Boothe, are all very good to excellent. Kurt Russell is fantastic as ever in his role as Wyatt. I seem to be reviewing a lot of his films recently, and believe me, it’s not coincidental. The guy is a tremendous actor and his resume of cracking films is ridiculous. Shoutouts to the cameos from Michael Rooker and Charlton Heston too.

From a visual perspective, this film has a real retro vibe to it and is just gorgeously shot. It could genuinely have been filmed in the 60s or 70s and not looked out of place. There’s so many stunning, scenic wide shots and cool little closeup cuts to the actors during stand-offs or moments of tension which was nicely done and really effective. The whole cinematography in general was just perfect, so take a bow William A. Fraker. It would be remiss of me not to mention the set and costume design which was on the money too. Musically, I loved the score in this film. Again, much like the visuals, it was like a classic western score and married well with everything happening in the film.

It’s not very often I watch a film and deem it something of a classic. This film is without a doubt in that category. It has all the components to propel it to that standard. The leading actors and overall ensemble performances are fantastic; it’s got some great dialogue; excellent bursts of action sandwiched between deeper, more reflective moments; the story is engaging, entertaining and it’s incredible both visually and musically. Also, it has subtle, little moments of brilliance, like for example, Doc’s clear analysis of Johnny Ringo’s draw speed during their first encounter and the way he then clearly uses that later to his advantage. I have an appreciation for small details of that ilk. Honestly, I can’t pick any faults with this film apart from it maybe embellishing the truth in its portrayal of certain events, but this isn’t really criticism as such, as it will always happen in films.

I would have absolutely no hesitation in recommending this film to anybody that hasn’t seen it. It deserves to be watched for Val Kilmer’s performance alone. Even if you aren’t a massive fan of the western genre, this film will still entertain you. It’s that good.

 

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