Wyatt Earp. He led a remarkably busy (and unscathed) life, and has been immortalized in both films and television shows alike. Here's 1994's Wyatt Earp, a bio-pic I'd never seen before a recent viewing.
Growing up on the family farm with his parents and brothers and sisters, young Wyatt Earp grows up learning to trust in himself and his family, and to always be there should that family need help. But as he puts his teenage years behind him, Wyatt (Kevin Costner) marries a beautiful young woman (Annabeth Gish) and looks to settle down and start a life. When his wife dies from typhoid, Wyatt is distraught, turning to alcohol and going into an epic depression. That's not the end that's meant for this enterprising young man though. Wyatt heads west, attracted by the possibility of riches in the untamed regions of the young country. Freight driver, bounty hunter, buffalo hunter, he tries it all, but his ultimate calling? That may be as a lawman, and the west is in great need of those. From boomtown to boomtown like Dodge City and Abilene, Wyatt's reputation grows and grows. That name begins to mean something -- fear, respect, intimidation -- as the far-more experienced, cynical Wyatt heads west once again with his brothers. This stop? Tombstone, Arizona.
I ain't real good at writing the words to describe an epic biography that covers multiple decades, introduces countless characters and in general, ain't easy to succinctly describe. And that's what this movie is. From director Lawrence Kasdan (also directed Silverado), 'Earp' is a three-hour biography of one of the west's most recognizable names, a bio-pic that was originally intended as a miniseries. Big impression? It probably would have been better that way. Even at three hours, this western feels like it tackled too much, taking on too much and not enough depending on the scene. Second big impression? It came out a year after one of the best westerns ever that dealt with the same topic, 1993's Tombstone. That's two strikes. What's gonna be the third one? Pick and choose because there's plenty.
History has a fun way of remembering folks. Case in point...Wyatt Earp. He was not a pleasant fella to say the least. The thing he is remembered most for -- the gunfight at the OK Corral -- led some to consider him and his brothers outright murderers. Wisely, 'Earp' does not try to gloss over the foibles and flaws in its titular character. Costner does a fine job showing Wyatt Earp's dark, cold, brutal side...but that's it. At a certain point, it gets repetitive. It becomes a performance without emotion because Wyatt becomes this one-note person. He wants to make a fortune for himself and his brothers. Anything else is just getting in the way. I found myself actively disliking the character and maybe that's the point. This is a bio-pic that probably shows Earp as he really was, not as we'd like to think of him. Accuracy is always a bonus in biographies, but that doesn't make it entertaining.
Almost from the beginning, 'Earp' felt like it handles everything in matter-of-fact fashion. Again...realistic but not necessarily entertaining (or even enjoyable). In its execution, this is a western epic that's trying to be EPIC and never quite gets there. Just not enough energy to bring it up to an epic level, much less a classic level. Gene Hackman gets to speechify in a small part as Wyatt's father, instilling (you could say drilling) the values that will impact his son for the rest of his life. One bbbbbbig moment after another comes along -- always with composer James Newton Howard's scoring swelling at the right moment -- and I kept waiting for these countless scenes to have some sort of impact on me...but they never did. When you know there's a three-hour running time still ahead of you, that's never a good feeling when you're not..well, feeling much at all about the movie.
One of the best things about Tombstone is the casting and characters. Here, dealing with the same people and the same basic story, only one performance really stands out. That's Dennis Quaid as Doc Holliday, a dentist, southern gentleman and gambler who's dying of tuberculosis. He has the unenviable task of following Val Kilmer's scene-stealing part as Doc, but creates his own character and performance. Quaid lost 30 pounds for the part of the dying gambler, giving him a distinctly sickly look. He's quick with a putdown and insult, just as quick as he is with a gun or knife in a scene-stealing performance. The only problem is that he's not around enough. There's too many speaking parts in general and most of them aren't developed nearly enough. Like so much else here, it felt like a wasted opportunity.
That said, 'Earp' does featuring some cool casting choices, even if they're misused. Michael Madsen, David Andrews, Linden Ashby and Jim Caviezel all play Earp brothers with Madsen and Ashby standing out for the positive. The Earp women, wives and sorta wives, played by Catherine O'Hara, JoBeth Williams and Mare Winningham, are given nothing to do other than complain Wyatt is mean in one-note performances (no fault of their own). In cool parts, Tom Sizemore and Bill Pullman play Bat and Ed Masterson, friends of the Earps and fellow lawmen, but they too are underused. Also look for Mark Harmon, Jeff Fahey, Joanna Going, Isabella Rossellini, and James Gammon in other supporting parts. Too many excellent historical figures are glossed over somewhat or entirely to the point it was unnecessary to even mention them.
I've always felt saying a movie is 'boring' is a cop-out, but man, this movie was boring. The last two hours are far better than the first, but I still kept waiting for the story and characters to pull me in. An epic disappointment unfortunately on basically on all levels.
Wyatt Earp (1994): **/****