The writer must admit a sentimental bias: Tombstone was one of those films we kept around the house growing up, a VHS copy recorded off the television perhaps a year after its release. It was probably first watched by me and, later, my younger brother, as it seemed subject to some loophole or blindspot in my parents’ otherwise stringent regulation of violent viewing. We kept watching it, however, in the years to come and when no holes were barred, because it’s a terrific actioner: stylish, momentous, and filled with highly economical yet effective (and often memorable) performances. Love of the genre appeared out of the mist somewhere around here.
Whereas Lawrence Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp (1994), released around the same time, tells loosely the same story with a sublime moodiness and angst, George P. Cosmatos’s Tombstone rides off with pulpy vigor. Wyatt Earp meets up with brothers Virgil (Sam Elliott) and Morgan (Bill Paxton) in ‘boomtown’ Tombstone, intent on putting his lawman days behind him and going into business. Try as he might to ignore it, however, Tombstone strikes Wyatt as a kind of ruined paradise, gradually throttled by the Cowboys, a gang headed by the villainous Curly Bill Brocius (Powers Boothe) and Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn). Unable to bring himself to exploit the town’s misfortune, the reluctant Wyatt is dragged back into law enforcement at the crabby behest of his brothers. Establishing new laws, they charge themselves with reining in the cowboys and making Tombstone livable for ordinary folk. “Justice,” as the tagline advises, “is coming.”
As Earp, Kurt Russell is stone-faced and eagle-eyed in the best kind of way, a storehouse of guilt and ambivalence. However, the film spends considerably more time introducing Doc Holiday, his tubercular buddy, played by Val Kilmer in an inspired performance. Rake-thin and chalk-pale, Kilmer’s Holiday sways around the movie with a effete charisma, firing wise-cracks as efficiently as he does his pistols.
Not everything in Tombstone works. Although my patience for all that lovey stuff may have advanced since I was ten, I can understand why I routinely fast-forwarded the romantic excursion of Wyatt and paramour Josephine. Wyatt’s martial woes aren’t disinteresting, exactly, but too far removed from the focus of the greater narrative. They also threaten to overload Wyatt’s character. His guilt over his past actions as a lawman is crucial to the plot, and clearly signaled; anxieties of a rather different variety threatened to push this into the background. Josephine herself is of little interest—a too-consciously ‘scandalous’ free-spirit, sassy to the point of tedium. Additionally, Jason Priestley, the cultured cowboy-associate, becomes enamored with a travelling theatre performer (Billy Zane) in queer subplot that would be fascinating were it not underdeveloped and, again, only loosely connected with the main drama.
Ultimately, however, Tombstone is a pretty easy film to like. It also looks splendid: the sight of Holiday, Wyatt, and bros strolling four-abreast toward the O. K. Corral, black-clad and meaning business was some costume designer’s proud moment. Cinematographically, the film borrows with skillful restraint from Leone and Peckinpah in the framing of its gunfights. Moreover, Bruce Broughton provides the film with one of the most underrated Western scores, which plays a crucial role in catching the viewer up into its thrilling gallop. Justice is coming, indeed.
4 / 5