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Retired legendary lawman Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell) re-unites with his brothers Virgil (Sam Elliott) and Morgan (Bill Paxton), and coincidentally his long time friend Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer) for a peaceful life in Tombstone, a silver mining town deep in Arizona. Unfortunately, Tombstone turns out to be kind of a bust. Wyatt’s wife Mattie Blaylock (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson) is addicted to laudanum, Doc is dying of TB, a band of ruthless outlaws that call themselves the Cowboys is terrorizing the populace, and the local law enforcement is entirely impotent. The only ray of sunshine is a travelling actress named Josephine Marcus (Dana Delany), who catches Earp’s eye. Unfortunately, the Cowboys start bringing the thunder in terms of confrontation, and Earp is still married to a laudanum addict.

Tombstone
The last two decades have not been a good time for the American Western, and it doesn’t look like there’s a ‘60s style creative resurgence on the horizon any time soon. Besides Clint Eastwood’s masterfully bleak deconstructionist Western Unforgiven, hard genre films underwent an especially harsh treatment in the ‘90s, which were periodically flecked with post- Dances with Wolves (a film bloated beyond genre trappings beyond location and themes, in my opinion) vanity epics, but the tonal tendency often skewed towards the ‘historical’, and ‘historical’ used (key word here: ‘used’) to translate to boring and long. Tombstone was somewhat ignored when it was released (well, not in Tucson, an hour’s drive from Tombstone, where I was attending middle school at the time), but turned a decent profit, and stands mostly apart from the genre pack in terms of focusing on entertainment over pomp or circumstance. The only comparably blissfully, uncomplicatedly entertaining and energetic genre film I can recall from the era is Sam Raimi’s flawed The Quick and the Dead (I realized almost too late that Lawrence Kasdan’s Silverado was an ‘80s film).

It’s relatively common knowledge these days that George P. Cosmatos wasn’t really the film’s director, but that star Kurt Russell was forced into a ‘ghost director’ role due to a series of studio politics, and Kevin Costner related shenanigans. Russell proves himself a solid craftsman of a director, taking most of his technical cues from down and dirty directors the likes of Walter Hill and Howard Hawks, rather than the more compulsive filmmakers like Peckinpah or Ford, though he’s never above a good, old fashion Sergio Leone eyeball close-up. In terms of recognizable visual and tonal style, however, I’d put John Carpenter at the top of Russell’s inspiration list, which makes total sense considering how close the two men have been creatively over the years. I have a feeling Carpenter (who’s never made an ‘official’ Western in his career, but dabbled for Assault on Precinct 13, Big Trouble in Little China, Vampires and Ghosts of Mars) would’ve dispensed with most of the mushy stuff, including Earp’s little love triangle, which is ironically enough the only element Russell really stumbles over (he and Delaney have no chemistry, or at least not nearly as much as he has with Kilmer). It would be great to see the aging Carpenter finally tackle the genre head-on before he dies, but assuming he never does, we have the next best thing here. The stylized storm scenes certainly carry a morsel of that patented Carpenter widescreen horror edge.

Tombstone
But beyond Russell’s aim to entertain, and well learned directorial hand, Tombstone is a minor classic just for its cast, which is so amazingly studded with character actors its very existence actually supersedes any actual performances. I’m pretty sure Michael Rooker doesn’t even have more than a single line of dialogue, but his perfectly character driven mug stands right next Thomas Hayden Church, Billy Zane, Bill Paxton, Sam Elliot, Billy Bob Thorton, Jon Tenney, Terry O’Quinn, and Stephen Lang. And in this tangled mass of perfect, rugged, Leone worthy mugs are two possible career best performances—Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday and Powers Boothe as Curly Bill Brocius. My Kilmer call out is a little more definitive, but mostly because Boothe played a similar character just as well for three seasons of [i]Deadwood. Michael Biehn also flirts with career defining scenery chewing, but he doesn’t quite overshadow his Terminator or Abyss performances. The only missing hard men character actors of the era are Robert Mitchum, Lance Henriksen, Michael Wincott, and Alfred Molina, who all coincidentally appeared in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (the most underappreciated and pulpy ‘90s Western) two years later (Mitchum was actually cast as Old Man Clanton, but after an injury ended up as Tombstone’s narrator). I suppose there’d be room for Clancy Brown in both films, but I’m going to draw the line at Bruce Campbell this time, because he had his own cult Western television series at the time of Tombstone’s release— The Adventures of Brisco County Jr..

Tombstone

Video


Tombstone is a definitive video upgrade on 1080p Blu-ray disc, but is not entirely without its problems. Overall the transfer is actually very similar to Universal’s Army of Darkness Blu-ray. The image is inconsistent in terms of sharpness and grain, mostly due to age (in the case of Army of Darkness the process effects shots were the bigger problem) or the deep darkness of some scenes. The grain here is a little more even than some other recent grainy releases, so it really isn’t a problem, unless viewers expect some kind of perfection out of the material, which is unfair. Also comparative to the Army of Darkness transfer is the tendency for over-sharpening, which leads to some unfortunate edge-enhancement, though the most valuable hard contrast edges, those of the long black posse coats in broad sunlight, are pretty much perfect. It’s usually worth it though, because the extra sharpness can be downright breathtaking. For the most part Tombstone is a brown, yellow, black and white movie, and even during the darker night scenes it doesn’t often stray from this pallet. The theatre scene is one of the film’s few stylized moments in terms of pallet, and it does feature the most noise, but the low-lit, smoky style lends itself to the added grain. Colour quality is, however, at its best during the many transitional sunrises, and when those red sashes pop against the dusty landscapes.

Audio


Tombstone isn’t a particularly aggressive film in terms of audio design, but the uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio track is aces in terms of volume levels and clarity. The soundtrack is mostly divided into basic, centred dialogue, relatively soft ambient noise, large gunshots, and Bruce Broughton delightfully campy score, which gives the stereo channels, and LFT the biggest workout. The more artful design is devoted to a few key scenes, like the OK Corral showdown, which features some snappy surround bullets, and the big storm sequence, which features some rollicking good directional thunder effects. This is again a clear upgrade from the Vista Series DVD, but not the kind of thing that you use to show off a good system.

Tombstone

Extras


Though they haven’t included anything new, or ‘director’ George Cosmatos’ commentary, but Disney doesn’t totally drop the ball in terms of extras on this Blu-ray release. Things begin with the three part ‘Making of Tombstone’ featurette, which includes ‘An Ensemble Cast’ (12:40, SD), ‘Making An Authentic Western’ (07:00, SD) and ‘The Gunfight At The O.K. Corral’ (07:30, SD). This was part of the Vista Series DVD release. This is, unfortunately mostly an elongated EPK, made up of somewhat fluffy on-set interviews with the cast and crew, scenes from the film, and a few historical images. Around the fluff and salesmanship are some valuable factoids concerning the history behind the story (the dissection of the gunfight is pretty fascinating), but there isn’t much interesting about the making of the film, specifically the controversy that’s come to light in recent years. The extras are wrapped up with a look at the OK Corral storyboards (04:00, SD), trailers, and trailers for other Disney releases.

Tombstone

Overall


The one thing most obviously missing from this Blu-ray release is the presence of the ‘Director’s Cut’, though I also think Disney missed a chance to put out a definitive retrospective look at the film, which has the cult following to pay for the production of extras. The behind the scenes story is fascinating, and it would be worth buying the film for an honest, studio-produced documentary on the subject. As is, fans should be happy with the uneven 1080p transfer, and perfectly adequate uncompressed DTS-HD soundtrack, but I can’t imagine anyone satisfied with the lack of new extras or the ‘Director’s Cut’ version of the film. Though that phrasing does beg the question: which director’s cut are we talking about?

*Thanks to Troy at Andersonvision.com for the screen-caps, which have been taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page.


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