Rated R for violence
Running time: 130 min.
Release date: December 25, 1993
Tombstone is more about relationships than it is about gun slinging in the Old West. It's about the relationship between a husband and wife; a married man and a free spirit; between a man and his brothers; most of all, between a man and his best friend. For all the gun-play in this film, the root and heart of the film is in the interactions of the characters with each other and how choices made affect those in your inner-most circle. That's not to say that each of these on-screen relationships actually works, but the intense action throughout the film is enough to make you forgive some of the missteps in the story.
Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell) and his brothers, Virgil and Morgan (Sam Elliott and Bill Paxton, respectively) have come to Tombstone, Arizona to settle down and make their fortunes. Wyatt has retired from law enforcement, much to the chagrin of many a town official who would like to acquire his services. Joining the Earps is the gambling, drinking, smoking southern gentleman known as Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer), as the viewer is quickly made aware that Holliday has a long-standing friendship with Wyatt. It doesn't take long for Wyatt to make his presence felt around town, as we get a scene where Wyatt uses psychology to intimidate a bully (Billy Bob Thornton) out of a gambling parlor. Meanwhile, a large gang of ruffians known as the Cowboys also make their presence known. Led by "Curly" Bill Broscius (Powers Boothe) and his lieutenant, Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn), the Cowboys are the kind of gang that show up at a classy event such as a play and shoot their guns in the air as a show of appreciation. Circumstances dictate that the Cowboys cross paths with the Earps, and indeed they do, which leads to the famous gunfight at the OK Corral. This event is merely the beginning of the festivities, however. Meanwhile, the story provides several subplots that are more on the personal level for some of the characters. Wyatt's wife, Mattie (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson), is addicted to laudanum; Wyatt meets and falls in love with the actress, Josephine Marcus (Dana Delany) and Doc is dealing with tuberculosis, which is threateningly close to ending his life. The screenplay by Kevin Jarre (who was also the original director) is overstuffed with ideas and attempts to keep the more violent conflicts as the focus in order to avoid pacing issues, while at the same time developing the relationships that are most important to the story. The romantic subplot between Wyatt and Josephine is misguided at best, mainly because there isn't much chemistry between Russell and Delany, but more on that in a moment. The action is violent and rowdy, with tough-guy one-liners and macho posturing throughout, and the movie succeeds on the visceral level quite successfully. The story does add some unnecessarily hammy dialogue at times, and there is a brief insinuation of homosexuality in the wild wild west, which would make for an interesting subtext in its own right, if only there weren't so many other subtexts to give time to. That's a fault with the screenplay; introducing more ideas than it can handle.
As mentioned, Kevin Jarre was the original director, but production issues forced the producers to remove Jarre from the helm, although his screenplay was left in place. George P. Cosmatos replaced Jarre, bringing with him a feel for bringing action onto the screen. His previous credits included The Cassandra Crossing, Rambo: First Blood Part II, Cobra and Leviathan. Cosmatos does a superb job of providing Tombstone with an authentic look and great sense of time and place. One of the drawbacks, however, is that the film's running time feels too long, caused more by the repetitive action scenes more than anything else. However, Cosmatos does an admirable job of reigning in Jarre's screenplay, which could have added even more bloat to the film.
When referring to the cast, the standout is Val Kilmer's interpretation of Doc Holliday. Touching, humorous and brazen, Kilmer's Holliday is at once vulnerable and bulletproof. This is probably Kilmer's greatest role. Kurt Russell, as Wyatt Earp, provides a grounded center for the film as a man reluctant to enter the fray but then forced to because of family and circumstances. The one issue found is with Russell's chemistry with Dana Delany. The viewer gets a feel of the marital discord between Wyatt and Mattie, but the scenes with Wyatt and Josephine together are awkward and forced. This is owed more to Delany's rather bland performance as Josephine, who is a self-described free spirit, something Delany did not quite grasp. Powers Boothe and Michael Biehn look and act every bit the part of mean, ornery rebels with no regard for the law.
When Tombstone is complete, what we're left with is a contemplative look at the relationship between a man and his best friend. The friendship between Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday is the focus after we have moved on from the shootouts, showing that the western genre is capable of providing touching moments. Tombstone is an energetic and entertaining story filled with equal doses of action and character study. While not a perfect film, it has more than enough elements that get things right, and can be enjoyed on more than one level.