Starring: Kevin Costner, Gene Hackman, Dennis Quaid, Catherine O’Hara, Bill Pullman, Isabella Rosselini
Director: Lawrence Kasdan
Mood: If everyone sucks and you have to do f*cking everything yourself and you want to lose yourself in three hours of Wyatt Earp going through the same shit… but despite all your rage, you still care about historical accuracy.
As a diehard fan of Tombstone from the year it came out and rocked my adolescent mind – and as someone who HATED Kevin Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves – I refused to watch Wyatt Earp.
I was one of those cocky, naive young adults who thinks they know everything because they saw it in a movie. That mindset in the ‘90s was the equivalent of how today’s kids (and an alarming number of grown-ass adults) believe everything they read on the Internet.
Tombstone’s Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday were THE Wyatt and Doc. I refused to believe there could be any other, especially Kevin F*cking Costner. This is a man who was handily upstaged by Carey Elwes brilliantly mocking him.
I’m notoriously stubborn and set in my ways, and this was one of the extreme cases where I got a notion in my head like 30 years ago, and never let go. I think I even told people that Wyatt Earp was a bunch of bullshit.
Allow me to publicly correct decades of burns, disses, shit-talking, and thoroughly knocking it before I tried it: Wyatt Earp is a really, really good movie.
FYI, this is a REALLY long review. But the movie is over three f*cking hours, so it evens out.
Wyatt Earp opens on Wyatt’s teenage years, trying to run away from home and enlist in pursuit of a higher purpose. Daddy Nicholas (Gene Hackman) catches young Wyatt and brings him home, politely saying he’ll have to whoop him a little.
The Earp clan gathers around the table, with mama Virginia Earp complaining that Nicholas wants to uproot the family and move again to seek riches. Some of the kids are keen to stay put, while others are okay with moving. This is the only indication of family tension; the focus is on establishing Wyatt Earp’s theme, taken from Nicholas’ stern-but-kindly mantra – “nothing counts so much as blood”.
There are lots of records of the real Nicholas Earp’s abusive behaviour and “volcanic” personality. He regularly beat his kids and wife, scared his neighbours, and fled towns to avoid debts. I took issue with the gentle hand given to the character in Wyatt Earp. Thankfully, his involvement pretty much ends there.
Wyatt falls in love and gets married, only to lose his wife (and unborn child) and become a nasty drunk. Given one last chance (conveniently by Papa Nicholas), he leaves town forever to start over.
Unlike Tombstone, this movie is impressively accurate to records of Earp’s life, or as close as a movie can be considering that A) records from that time are famously untrustworthy, and B) movies do have to adjust details and timelines for pacing.
Wyatt works his way up from buffalo hunter to sheriff, befriends the Mastersons, meets Doc Holliday, moves to Dodge City, and eventually, brings his brothers to Tombstone where he meets Josephine Marcus and has that famous shootout at a certain corral.
Costner’s Wyatt is broken, haunted, and increasingly a total hardass, which feels less dramatic and thus more real. I’m not saying that Costner’s Wyatt was better than Kurt Russell’s. I think it’s waffles and pancakes – Russell gave a powerful performance with the script he had, and so did Costner. Russell was more engaging while dour; Costner was less likable and sexy, which is probably more like the real Wyatt.
But Kurt Russell wins by a landslide as far as moustaches.
Speaking of which, Dennis Quaid as Doc Holliday somehow wins best moustache for Wyatt Earp with his thick, dark facial follicles. This makes NO f*cking sense to me, since Doc Holliday was a strawberry blonde dandy, but there you go.
Quaid is passable as Doc. In his first scene I thought he was going to rock it – the accent was on point, and I was ready to buy what he was selling. But the problem with Quaid’s performance is that he’s too strong. Doc was literally f*cking dying every moment of his adult life. Quaid’s voice is booming and powerful, lacking both the strain and the genteel Southern charm.
To be fair, no one will ever compete with Val Kilmer’s Doc. He LIVED that role. He was frail, sweaty, and trembling through every last line.
I feel like this is all coming across as negative – there were so many good performances, I really do like this movie!
Bill Pullman is awesome as Ed Masterson. He starts out nervous and naive, and evolves into a confident and strong man. There’s legit growth in a small amount of presence, which is the mark of talent. This is the dashing cowboy Bill Pullman I expected in The Ballad of Lefty Brown… but Wyatt Earp was almost 30 years ago, and we’ve both obviously aged some.
The other Earp brothers don’t get as much screen time as in Tombstone, but the actors (David Andrews as James, Linden Ashby as Morgan, Michael Madsen as Virgil) are all solid in their roles.
James Earp wasn’t even featured in Tombstone, and neither was his wife Bessie (JoBeth Williams), so I really appreciated seeing them included. I’ve always enjoyed their story, and I felt like the script gave it a nod and a little love.
The Cowboys don’t have as much screen time either, which works here because this is really a period drama/biopic. Plus, their performances weren’t memorable. Lewis Smith is a passable at best Curly Bill Brocius; he’s no Powers Boothe – but who could be? His character should have been able to steal the show, but he didn’t. And Jeff Fahey didn’t do much with the role of Ike Clanton.
I like Joanna Going better as Josephine Marcus than Dana Delany, although neither does a particularly good a job of digging into her personality because the research and focus was all about Wyatt (read Epitaph for a stronger story!).
The one main character I felt Wyatt Earp kind of fluffed, other than Nicholas Earp, was Mattie Blaylock/Earp (Mare Winningham). The script only momentarily touched on her origin, and encapsulated her in protection from the other Earp women, even blaming Wyatt for her addiction. Records indicate she was a violent and destructive addict throughout their entire relationship.
I don’t know how the amazing Isabella Rossellini landed this far down, but here we go: she did a fantastically convincing job as the cold, analytical Big Nose Kate, and I liked her performance better than Quaid’s as Doc.
Critics were kind of meh on Wyatt Earp at its release, mostly because of the duration (3 hours 11 minutes) and pacing. It came out six months after Tombstone and was a colossal fail by comparison. But honestly, I think this movie is one for the Earp clan history buffs – it’s more accurate, more detailed, and gives you way more STORY.
There are SO MANY details that Western nerds like me will appreciate, like a quick reference to how Behan got Kate drunk while she was fighting with Doc and coerced her into giving a false statement that Doc had participated in a stage robbery. These mentions of recorded facts will make your brain happy.
Wyatt Earp is more of a period drama than an action flick for long stretches, and that’s a good thing – lots of Westerns are more dramatic. Look at Shane or High Noon. Plus, it’s no worse on pacing than Lonesome Dove.
Director Lawrence Kasdan has said, “I don’t know that I should have made the movie Wyatt Earp. We knew that there were inherent problems in it commercially, in that Wyatt Earp is not a particularly appealing or sympathetic character.”
You know what I say to that? F*ck it! You went for true colours and you made a Sacketts-type epic that real fans will watch over and over again. It also opened me up to watching Open Range, another brilliant Costner Western.