Grecco-Italian film director George P. Cosmatos has a smaller resumé than some of his peers but chances are you’ve heard of few of them; after all if you aren’t familiar with the volatile insanity of Rambo: First Blood Part II or Cobra – two movies that see Sylvester Stallone try to single-handedly right America’s wrongs by shooting and stabbing things – then do you even movie, bro?
However, possibly the best of Cosmatos’ fairly violent output is arguably 1993 cult western Tombstone, an rousingly rowdy telling of the Gunfight At The OK Corral that treats actual facts as an inconvenience and instead loads it’s running time with quotable dialogue, a dazzlingly starry cast and more impressive facial hair than a Freddie Mercury lookalike conversation. In the inevitable gun battle of the twin 90’s movies made about Wyatt Earp – the other being Kevin Costner’s Wyatt Earp which was released around six months later – Cosmatos’ pulpy hit was by far the faster draw ironically by taking an American legend and making it fucking awesome.
In 1879, a large outlaw gang known as The Cowboys prove they’re more adept at wrong doing than they are at picking cool names when we see then bushwhack a Mexican wedding in direct response to the death of two of their members. Leading the colourful group of thieves and murderers is Curly Bill Brocius, a murdering bully with a smile as welcoming as a wearing a pubic wig made of live scorpions, who has able backup from his equally frosty hearted second in command, the steely-eyed Johnny Ringo and after moving on, eventually settle in the prospering town of Tombstone.
Also choosing to settle in the ominously titled settlement is the Earp clan, three brothers and their wives who are finally looking to grow some roots and make their fortune with various business ventures. Most desperate for the quiet life is Wyatt, who, after a career of upholding the law as a Peacemaker, longs for simpler times despite the fact that his wife is usually loaded up to the eyeballs on laudanum. Meeting up with his old friend, the dangerously witty Doc Holiday who’s moved to Tucson hoping the dry climate will ease his tuberculosis, things start to become complicated when the Earps and The Cowboys start butting heads which comes to a head when Curly Bill shoots a hole through the sheriff while off his outlaw tits on opium. While Wyatt’s brothers Virgil and Morgan feel compelled to step in a try to bring a sense of order to town that might hopefully stick, Wyatt is vehemently opposed to the idea after years of doing exactly that but is nevertheless dragged into the steadily building conflict. Everything builds to a head at the OK Corral, where the Earps and Doc Holiday engage a selection of The Cowboys in a brutal gunfight, but instead of ending things it only inflames the situation which leads to a steadily rising bodycount on both sides. Who will walk away from this bloody feud alive and subsequently stride godlike into American folklore forever?
What’s makes Tombstone so remarkable in comparison to other westerns is that for a movie that goes incredibly hard while mythologising a pinnacle moment in American history, it doesn’t actually play into a lot of the tropes that you’d normally expect to see in a movie of the same genre, choosing to forgo the drawn out shots of gorgeous vistas and the wordless (and endless) dance of glares that occurs before someone yanks a pistol from it’s holster and fires it at his opponents rib cage simply because it doesn’t have the time… Happily opting to not go the route of racking up a three hour and thirty minute runtime of Kevin Costner’s version, Costamos keeps shit light on it’s feet by removing a lot of the visual poetry of Howard Hawks and Sergio Leone and replacing it with possibly one of the greatest character actor casts the modern western has ever fucking seen.
Firstly we have the duelling facial hair of Kurt Russell and Sam Elliott as the two elder Earp brothers with the added bonus of the late, great Bill Paxton as the youngest while on the other side of the law, members include the patron saint of gravelly voices himself, Powers Booth, with the controlled steel of Michael Biehn as Ringo and other actors such as Stephen Lang and Thomas Hayden Church to back him up. If that wasn’t impressive enough, popping up every five minutes to add to the sheer nexus of people pointing at the screen and announcing: “oh shit, it’s that guy!” is a wealth of other familiar faces such as Michael Rooker, Billy Zane, Jason Priestley, Billy Bob Thornton and even – whisper it – Chalton fucking Heston, which makes Tombstone a sort of collapsed singularity of kickass character actors that were all born to walk down dusty streets with a six-shooter on their hip as they dramatically spit a think globe of spit after every sentence. However, virtually eclipsing them all is a constantly sweating Val Kilmer as the verbally flamboyant Doc who nabs pretty much most of the best lines (“I’ll be your huckleberry.”) and certainly scarpers off with the consistently best moments. Be it verbally jousting with opposite number Johnny Ringo in Latin (plays better than it sounds) or striding into every situation like he owns it despite being sheathed in sweat, he sweeps all but one man off the screen – but then it would be utterly impossible to completely eclipse Kurt Russell, surely cinema’s greatest living everyman, when the script throws him the lifeline of some dialogue and action sequences so meaty he chews on it like a cheap steak. There’s not many actors who can bark lines like “You called down the thunder, and now you got it!” and “You tell em’ I’m comin’ and hell’s comin’ with me!” and not have it come across as supremely cheesy, but then Russell was fucking born to yell shit like this on celluloid and he even pulls off a dangerously ridiculous scene where he stalks into the middle of a crossfire while repeatedly bellowing “NO!” at his assailants as he blows away ne’re do wells while barely getting a scratch.
If Tombstone has a flaw, it’s that everything after the fallout of the OK Corral moves at such speed, that Wyatt Earp’s hunting of The Cowboy gang whizzes by like a screeching bullet and feels weirdly anticlimactic. It’s like it’s so obsessed with maintaining it’s momentum it figures literally making it’s third act one huge montage of Russell and Kilmer shooting people is the best way to wrap everything up without having things drag on to Coster-lengths. To be fair, it actually works despite leaving things feeling a little trite (Wyatt dropping his druggie, common-law wife in favour of a new beau just sort of… happens) but this defiant nose-thumbing to tradition in favour of thrills and spills is precisely what makes Tombstone stand out and it’s glorious flaws will always make it be our huckleberry.
“I’m in my prime.” sardonically drawls Doc Holiday at one point – he ain’t fuckin’ wrong.