Blu-Ray Review: Tombstone

I suppose I should start this review with a confession.  For the most part, I don’t really like Westerns.  In fact, it’s pretty much the only genre I don’t like.  For the most part, I find them all too similar, with the characters drawn in very broad strokes and the action too redundant from one film to the next.  So this was my mindset as I begrudgingly began the film. 

As the film opened with a scratchy black-and-white history of the city of Tombstone and the cowboys who ran the town, I feared the worst.  I was already bored.  And yet, as the film progressed, I began noticing the scope of the town, with its incredible ensemble of characters, and that’s when I realized that this was not a typical Western.  It may have the trappings of the genre, but this was more akin to an ensemble character-study.  It turns out that there are over 85 speaking roles in the film, and the screenplay by Kevin Jarre utilizes all of these parts to make the city of Tombstone a fascinating locale, and in essence, a character itself.

That’s not to say that this is some low-budget, dialogue intensive artsy film.  This is a very mainstream and exciting film.  The story is told mostly from the perspective of Wyatt Earp, perfectly embodied by Kurt Russell.  After the prologue establishing the ruthlessness of the cowboys, the story picks up with Earp arriving in town with his brothers, Morgan and Virgil, and their wives.  We quickly learn that Wyatt had already made a name for himself as a lawman, and now that he was residing in Tombstone, a lawless town, his reputation made him both a target and someone to fear. 

Eventually, Wyatt runs into his old friend Doc Holliday, played by Val Kilmer.  These men couldn’t be more dissimilar, with Earp as the lawman and Holliday as the drunken, cheating gambler who will stab a man to death with little provocation.  And yet, there is a history between them.  One which isn’t fully explored, but which led to a strong mutual respect for each other.  Kilmer steals the show as Holliday, playing him as a darkly funny, yet semi-tragic character.  Diagnosed with tuberculosis, Holliday is riding out his final days by trying to push the limits of what he deems “entertainment.”  Mostly drinking and gambling. 

When these two characters meet up, the film really kicks into high gear.  The cowboys begin to realize that they are losing control of the town, which leads to the infamous “gunfight at the OK Corral.”  This sequence is very brief, but very powerful.  The filmmakers could very easily have staged this as a standard shoot-out, but they wisely never lose sight of the characters involved, showing us the emotions, strategies and mistakes of this epic encounter.

This is a turning point for the film, where battle lines are decisively drawn.  Almost every character in this film is flawed, but none completely unlikable.  There is no real good and evil.  Up until this shootout, even the cowboys have a glimmer of humanity about them.  After the gunfight however, things become more black-and-white.  People were killed in that shoot-out, and retribution becomes a theme.  The film becomes very exciting, but the characters evolve with the action sequences, and the changes are permanent. 

Tombstone is one of those films that is everything you would expect from a classic movie.  There is a great deal of humor mixed with tragedy, and the story is compelling.  When the movie was over, I felt like I had been taken on a journey.

Unfortunately, the new Blu-Ray release isn’t quite as compelling.  Having never seen the film before, I don’t know how it compares to the DVD release, but I can’t imagine this looks much better.  The picture quality and the sound are perfectly fine, but nothing really stands out with the superiority of most Blu-Ray releases.  As for the extras, there is a feature entitled “The making of Tombstone,” which runs just under half an hour.  Broken down into three segments (An Ensemble Cast, Making an Authentic Western, and The Gunfight at the OK Corral), this feature does not contain any new material.  It is all archive footage from when the film was shot.  As for the material itself, it’s exactly what you’d expect from those names.  The best stuff is at the beginning, where they discuss the real-life characters, and give backstories that are only hinted at in the film.

Also included are the Director’s original storyboards.  Running about four minutes, these are presented as a slideshow, and while it’s always interesting to see behind-the-scenes material, there is nothing inherently fascinating about these specifically.

Despite the lack of bonus material, I love this Blu-Ray.  If it wasn’t for this release, I probably would never have even seen the film.  I’m thrilled to have discovered it, and it even got me wondering what other great movies I’ve missed out on because of my bias against the genre.  Having completely forgotten that I was watching a Western, Tombstone won me over.

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