| by Justin Thomas |
Lora Kennedy either had a tremendous grudge against the Tombstone production or was told to go cast as many bad actors as humanly possible. If the direction were the latter, then she pulled a Hank Aaron and knocked the ball clean out of Milwaukee County Stadium because it’s a veritable Who’s Who of absolutely crap actors.
Here’s the list of garbage: Bill Paxton, Powers Boothe, Michael Biehn, Stephen Lang and Thomas Haden Church. I didn’t include Sam Elliott and Charlton Heston in the list of trash only to keep from getting torched but let me tell you, they nearly made it.
Tombstone desperately wants to be a good, old timey Western, and it succeeds. After the opening narration by the Bad Ass To End All Bad Asses Robert Mitchum (look it up, that’s his official title), it goes right into the Cowboys laying waste to a wedding in which Johnny Ringo takes aim and helps a priest pass along to eternal bliss. There is no gray in Tombstone: you’re either good or you’re bad and the end of your story will be written accordingly. Doc isn’t gray although the movie might want you to think he is; he’s there for Wyatt far too often to truly believe in his hypocrisy. The good guys are good, the bad guys are bad, and anyone wearing a red sash is going to die.
Where Tombstone runs off the tracks is in the performances from the aforementioned Big Five of Shite: Paxton, Boothe, Biehn, Lang and Church. They’re given lines such as “I want your blood, and I want your souls, and I want them both right now,” and “Listen, Mr. Kansas Law Dog, law don’t go around here, savvy?” Those hyper-macho lines, which have a place in a Western actually attempting to be a Western, are dangerous lines when put in the hands of people who can’t handle them because they think they’re a joke. There’s something behind the eyes, and in the smirk, that says Biehn and Lang both understand just how ridiculous they sound, and rather than do anything to try to sell them, they wink at the camera through the entire movie.
So then enters two honest-to-goodness Movie Stars. Capital letters. Guys who would have done just fine in the 1940s or 1950s heading up studio picture after studio picture. Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer also know they’re in a movie where the testosterone needs to be visible and they’re both given equally if not more ridiculous lines to say, but what separates them from the rest of the production is they know how to do it. They don’t wink at the camera. They don’t acknowledge through a smirk how they aren’t necessarily being asked to play Hamlet.
In Russell’s key scene, Earp sees his family off at the train station. He knows the Cowboys will be there to end the conflict. He intends to send a message. He’s given lines where he has to put the fear of God into Ike which crescendos from “So run, you cur, run, tell all the other curs the law’s comin’,” to “And Hell’s comin’ with me, you hear, Hell’s comin’ with me!” Under no circumstances would that win an Academy Award for Best Writing, but Russell pulls it off. There’s no rolling of the eyes or “Gimme a break” from it. Nope. It’s just Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp preparing to bring a reckoning to those who wronged him, and he gives the line in such a way there is little doubt he means to accomplish it. A nuanced performance it is not. It’s simply what a Movie Star does when he’s given a part he wants to sink his teeth into.
As for Kilmer? He disappears into Doc. He’s easy going, intelligent, devil-may-care unless it’s time to throw down then there’s little hope for the guy on the other side, and he’ll oblige you with a learned quote as you pass along to the other side. His lines aren’t as questionable as “You skin that smoke wagon and we’ll see what happens,” but they also aren’t in the realm of authentic to anything Kilmer could possibly know.
Tombstone isn’t a particularly good movie as measured by being anything other than being a two-hour amusement park ride. It’s probably best viewed in the television room of a frat house with rules established as to when one takes a drink or when someone needs a Dana Delany fix and is upset Netflix doesn’t have China Beach or Exit to Eden on instant download. It’s best suited to illustrate the difference between Movie Stars and guys who stand in front of a camera. How I hate, hate, hate Bill Paxton.