Young Guns II

Posted on March 14th, 2011 in 1990s, James Coburn, Westerns by Colin

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So I’ve come to the last entry in this short series. To be brutally honest, these last two movies have sapped my energy. If anything, I have to say that Young Guns II succeeds in being even more offensive and irritating than its predecessor. The performances are down to, or maybe even lower than, the standards set in the previous film and all semblance of accuracy is cheerfully chucked out the window. I actually reached the point where viewing this became a chore, and that’s a long way from what I regard as the purpose of the movie watching experience.

The story picks up where the first Young Guns left off - the end of the Lincoln County War. The Kid (Emilio Estevez) is now a wanted man by those seeking to put the violent past to bed and get down to the serious business of making money. Billy has taken up with Pat Garrett (William Petersen) and Dave Rudabaugh (Christian Slater) now that his old gang has broken up. However, the powerful men in the region, Lew Wallace and Chisum (James Coburn), want all those involved in the Lincoln County War rounded up and disposed of. To this end, Doc Scurlock (Kiefer Sutherland) is abducted and hauled back to New Mexico to face retribution. Chavez (Lou Diamond Phillips) is there too, biding his time in a pit in Lincoln. When the cocksure Kid sees a deal with Governor Wallace go sour, he takes it on himself to break his buddies out of stir in one of the noisiest and most ludicrous scenes in the film. There’s also a parting of the ways, with Garrett breaking away to find his own path. However, it’s not long before the former outlaw is recruited by Wallace and Chisum, appointed sheriff and tasked with running down his old friends. The rest of the movie plays out the familiar old story of The Kid running and Garrett chasing until both men meet up in Fort Sumner. The climax is supposed to be one of those ambiguous, did-he-or-didn’t-he, type things that folds into the framing prologue and coda. However, after sitting through an hour and a half plus of mindless gunplay and hopeless mugging it’s very hard to care one way or the other. In a way though, it’s somehow appropriate after serving up an unappetising blend of bad history that the film should end by wheeling out yet one more dubious slice of mythology.

Showing how it should be done - James Coburn as Chisum in Young Guns II

I already listed all the shortcomings of the performances of Estevez, Sutherland and Phillips in my previous review, and I see no need to go over the same ground again here. I will say though that Estevez manages to be even more annoying this time round; his endless whooping and quipping has the effect of leaving the viewer longing for Garrett to put a bullet in him, and that’s surely not the point of any movie about his character. The addition of Slater, Balthazar Getty and Alan Ruck really brings nothing to proceedings, with Slater in particular proving himself in need of a good sound slapping. William Petersen comes off best in the role of Garrett, but even so he has a lightweight quality about him that’s painfully obvious in the scene where he gets himself hired as sheriff. Seeing him seated opposite James Coburn, who played the definitive version of the character, just brings home the deficiencies. While the acting is weak, the jarring soundtrack against which the action takes place is anachronistic and misguided enough to be a major distraction. A very poor effort all round.

One good thing that can be said is that the DVD transfer is fine. The Warners R2 disc presents the movie in anamorphic scope, and it’s clean, sharp and colourful. However, no matter how nice the image is the fact remains that Young Guns II is a turkey and I was relieved when the credits finally rolled.

This series has been something of a roller coaster in terms of quality and entertainment. The high point was most definitely Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, with the two Young Guns features coming in last in every respect. One thing that has become apparent to me is how ill-defined the character of Billy the Kid is, with only Peckinpah’s film really fleshing him out at all. When I did pieces on the Jesse James and Wyatt Earp movies I noticed how much of an impression was generally made by the characters of Frank James and Doc Holliday respectively. The same could be said here; in nearly every movie it’s the figure of Pat Garrett who seems most memorable. I suppose this says something about the way historical figures are portrayed on film but I’m not quite sure what that is, except that it maybe underlines the difficulty of such an undertaking. Anyway, the project’s been a pleasure (mostly) and I hope it’s offered at least a little entertainment for anyone who has been following.

Wyatt Earp

Posted on May 7th, 2008 in 1990s, Westerns, Lawrence Kasdan, Kevin Costner by Colin

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“Some people say it didn’t happen that way…..”

I want to preface this piece by saying that Wyatt Earp is a film for which I’ve never had any particular fondness. However, having said that, I’ve just watched it again after making a conscious decision to try and keep an open mind, and hopefully be as objective as possible. I first saw the film during its initial theatrical run and then later on DVD. I can’t honestly say that I was relishing the prospect of another viewing but I didn’t feel I could round out my series without revisiting this movie. For most film fans any discussion of Wyatt Earp almost always leads to its being compared to Tombstone. Given that both films featured the same lead characters and came out so close together, such comparisons are inevitable but not necessarily fair. While Tombstone focuses on one particular time and place, Wyatt Earp is a sprawling epic that attempts to cover the course of the man’s life. I used to wonder if the fact that I saw Tombstone first colored my opinion in any way, but I don’t now believe that’s the case. I thought Wyatt Earp was a flawed picture on my initial viewing and I still feel the same.

The story begins during the Civil War when Wyatt was helping look after the family farm in Iowa while his older brothers James (David Andrews) and Virgil (Michael Madsen) were off fighting. He is shown attempting to run away to enlist only to be caught and brought back by his father (Gene Hackman). This event, and the subsequent return from war of the brothers, is the cue for some heavy-handed speech making from Hackman. The point of this is to show how Wyatt’s views and attitudes were formed from an early age but I’ve never been keen on this technique for showing character development, it’s always struck me as a lazy way of making a movie. Anyway, having bludgeoned home the point that blood ties are the major motivating force in the young man’s life, the film follows the family on their long trek west to the promised land of California. From there we get snippets of Wyatt’s time as a teamster and how he gained experience in facing down bad men. A fair amount of time is spent on his move to Missouri in order to marry his childhood sweetheart, who succumbs to typhoid soon after the marriage. I found this part of the film dragged a lot although the purpose of its inclusion is to provide an explanation for Wyatt’s later emotional detachment. The pace does pick up when Earp moves to Wichita, Dodge, and ultimately Tombstone, all the while building and expanding his reputation as a fearsome lawman. This is certainly the strongest section of the film and it has to be said that the producers went to great lengths to recreate the look and feel of those wide open frontier towns. It’s also the part of the film that introduces some major characters Doc Holliday (Dennis Quaid), his woman Big Nose Kate (Isabella Rossellini), and Bat and Ed Masterson (Tom Sizemore & Bill Pullman).

It all ends now! - Kevin Costner as Wyatt Earp.

Everything builds towards the fateful confrontation with the Cowboys in Tombstone and its aftermath. The O.K. Corral scene is filmed well enough but it just doesn’t carry the punch that such a defining event should; after all, had this not taken place no one would ever have thought to make films about these characters. The resulting vendetta is nowhere near as exciting as it should be and never conveys the sense of the righteous settling of scores that one expects. One major gripe that I had was in the scene showing the climactic gunfight at Iron Springs. Before this the character of Johnny Ringo had barely been mentioned, let alone portrayed. Yet here we have the Earp posse riding into a hail of gunfire, and Doc shouts out the name of Ringo before blasting a faceless man high up in the rocks. If the writers hadn’t wanted to use this character, that’s fair enough - just ignore him. But the way it was handled made me feel that they were sitting around and suddenly realised that here was another name they had to check off the list before things could be wrapped up. In a sense this sums up a serious weakness in the movie, namely the portrayal of the villains. If you’re going to make a big film then you need to ensure that the bad guys are big and bad too. In Wyatt Earp the Cowboys are poorly defined and never provide any real feeling of threat, they’re just a bunch of grubby, unshaven guys who look vaguely mean. Of course I’m aware that this may be closer to the truth but the point is that such realism does not make for a good film. Let’s just say it’s never good news when one of your principal baddies is played by Jeff (straight-to-video) Fahey.

So, for me, the greatest flaws in the movie are the acting and the scale. Costner’s acting style may well be an acquired taste, if so I have yet to acquire it. I could be generous and say that his is a restrained performance but the truth is that he simply comes across as wooden. Every line, no matter what emotion lies behind it, is delivered in the same careful, measured tone. Even if this is true to the character it makes it impossible for the viewer to connect in any way. Dennis Quaid’s Doc Holliday definitely comes off the best but, again, it’s hardly an endearing performance. The real man may not have been a charming figure, but Quaid gives us an irritable and irritating jerk that even Wyatt Earp would have had a hard time considering a friend. There’s also something forced about his interpretation; he certainly looked the picture of bad health but I always had the sense that I was watching an actor in a role, not a real person. The support cast are largely disappointing but the best of the bunch is probably Bill Pullman as the ‘affable’ Ed Masterson. Michael Madsen’s Virgil Earp is generally colorless, but then I’ve always thought that Madsen is a rather limited actor who’s nowhere near as tough as he’d like to think. In general, the cast is filled up with too many nobodies and TV actors, which means too many flat and lifeless performances.

The moment of truth - the Earps and Holliday at the O.K. Corral.

As I said, the scale of the film is another problem - and one that seems to dog many of Costner’s projects. In brief, it’s too long and tries to pack in too much. By attempting to chart the life of this man the film has both too much detail and too little. This results in characters coming and going without the audience getting the chance to know them in any way. Having said that, it does look good and there are some beautifully composed shots of the western landscape. Also, James Newton Howard’s score has that soaring, epic feel to it. Ultimately, though, the film disappointed me and left me feeling as cold as the Alaskan landscape in the final shot.

Wyatt Earp is on DVD from Warner in R1 and R2 in its theatrical cut. As far as I know, the extended cut has never been available on DVD - in a sense I’m grateful for that since I’m of the opinion that a few more trims wouldn’t have hurt this one. I know some may see this as a bit of a hatchet job, but I have tried to give my own honest assessment of the movie and what I feel are its flaws. I hope my efforts at articulating my views make some sort of sense.

So, one month and eight films later, I have come to the end of my series of reviews of the Wyatt Earp movies. I have to say it has been enjoyable for me to go through them all back to back, and I can only hope the readers of this blog haven’t been bored witless by it. What I have noticed most in this lengthy perusal, apart from the increasing focus on realism, is how the character of Wyatt Earp evolved - from the generic and uncomplicated western hero of Randolph Scott, to the taciturn and unsympathetic professional of Kevin Costner. Each characterization added a little more depth to the legend and simultaneously stripped away a little of the myth to reveal more of the darkness inside. I still feel that, despite all the inaccuracies, My Darling Clementine is the best of all the films. I would rank Tombstone as the most entertaining and arguably the most accessible. Unfortunately, I would have to place Wyatt Earp far down the list, maybe even at the bottom - it was just too ambitious and ultimately unable to deliver all that it promised.

Tombstone

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No. Make no mistake; it’s not revenge he’s after…it’s a reckoning.

Is Tombstone the best western of recent years? Perhaps not, but it must surely rank as one of the most entertaining. Eastwood’s Unforgiven may have more things to say, it’s themes may run deeper, but despite its undeniable quality it is nowhere near as much fun as Tombstone. When one sets about telling a story that has already been committed to celluloid as many times as this one has, it’s no mean feat to produce something which avoids staleness. The trick was to make a film that stayed closer to the historical facts than any previous effort, yet compress it and ensure that the pacing didn’t suffer. Tombstone manages to maintain this fine balance: the facts are mostly adhered to, but some are altered for dramatic effect and, crucially, the script never allows itself to getbogged down in tedious minutiae.

The title of the film makes it plain that it’s going to deal with the portion of Wyatt Earp’s life spent in the town of Tombstone, and the events surrounding it. Of course references are made to the lives and exploits of the Earps in the years preceding the story but they’re never labored, serving only to clarify the reputation of Wyatt. The opening of the film is a short montage of black and white shots with a voiceover by Robert Mitchum to establish time and place. This little sequence ends with the famous shot from The Great Train Robbery (1903), where a gun is fired straight at the audience. In truth, this is only one of many homages paid to the classic westerns of years gone by, the film is littered with them. From there on, it’s pure blood and thunder stuff as we get our first glimpse of the villains of the piece, the Cowboys, riding into a Mexican pueblo to massacre a wedding party as an act of vengence. The real Cowboys were a band of outlaws who came together from time to time to engage in various criminal acts. The movie, in order to heighten the drama, gives the impression that they were a closely knit group - a sort of western prototype for the mafia. The Earps, on the other hand, are shown to be former lawmen (except the younger Morgan) who have no interest in a confrontation, preferring to spend their time building up their finances via gambling. Some of their less savoury activities, such as their alleged involvement in prostitution, are glossed over, although Ike Clanton (Stephen Lang) frequently refers to them as pimps. They only find themselves drawn into conflict with the Cowboys after the killing of town marshal Fred White (Harry Carey Jnr) forces their hand. As a result, the situation soon deteriorates rapidly, culminating in the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, the Cowboys’ retribution, and Wyatt’s subsequent vendetta.

Hell's coming with me - Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp. 

The centrepiece is undoubtedly the shootout at the O.K. Corral, and this is filmed with much more attention to the real details than ever before. The movie takes pains to show who shot who, when, where and how. Even the dialogue sticks close to what has been recorded, with Wyatt (Kurt Russell) telling Ike to either get to fighting or go (he went) and Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer) delivering the memorable “You’re a daisy if you do” before dispatching Frank McLaury. It’s a well filmed scene which captures not only the spontaneous excitement but also the nervy disorganisation of the event. The aftermath of this was a lot of legal shenanigans before the Cowboys took bloody revenge on the Earps. The movie skips over the legal wrangling completely and condenses the Cowboys’ attack into one night of violence. While this may be taking liberties with the facts, it helps the film immeasurably by ensuring the narrative keeps moving. The greatest divergence from the truth takes place during the depiction of the vendetta. There were nowhere near as many people killed as the movie suggests, although the entertainment value would have been greatly reduced if this had been insisted on. Even so, the film still manages to include some genuine happenings here, such as Wyatt’s shotgun duel with Curly Bill (Powers Boothe) and the stopover at the ranch of Arizona cattleman Henry Hooker (Charlton Heston).

I'm your huckleberry - Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday.

The acting is dominated by Kurt Russell as Wyatt, Val Kilmer as Doc, and Michael Biehn as Johnny Ringo. These three performances are central to the success of the movie and they’re so good it’s hard to imagine anyone else filling the roles. Russell plays Earp as a cold pragmatist driven to action only by family loyalty, and an emotional icicle who’s gradually thawed out by Dana Delany’s slightly goofy but attractive actress. Michael Biehn’s Ringo is a study in madness and evil, alternately killing priests, quoting in latin, and screaming at the Earps that he wants their blood and souls. The real standout, though, is Val Kilmer as the screen’s definitive Doc Holliday. It is unlikely that Kilmer will ever play a better part (he’s certainly done nothing approaching it since) than the doomed lunger. He gets all the best lines and delivers them with such fatalistic charm that you can’t help liking him. The script also offers him a great exit; if that deathbed scene doesn’t bring a tear to your eye then you’ve obviously mislaid your heart somewhere. It’s nice to see a nod to the classic westerns with the casting of Harry Carey Jnr and Charlton Heston, and Robert Mitchum’s narration - Mitchum was to have played Old Man Clanton but a back injury on the first day of filming put paid to that. A few other references to the movies of the past come with Dana Delany singing Red River Valley (one of John Ford’s favorites) and Russell channelling the spirit of Henry Fonda as he reclines on the boardwalk with his heels on the hitching post before marching off to the O.K. Corral and immortality.

The only DVD of this film worth owning is the R1 Director’s Cut. The anamorphic scope transfer is generally good, though there is visible edge enhancement. The 2-disc set has a number of extras including a commentary from director George P. Cosmatos and, most importantly, it is the only complete version of the film. The added scenes, while not of huge significance, do help fill in a few gaps in the narrative. Although Tombstone will probably never attain the status of one of the great westerns I still get an enormous kick out of it every time I see it.