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The Rad '90s Western Tombstone Is Val Kilmer's Finest Hour

Illustration for article titled The Rad '90s Western Tombstone Is Val Kilmer's Finest Hour

Since I started writing this column, I've been wondering what to do with westerns. They aren't quite action movies, but they're action-adjacent. It feels a bit ridiculous to discuss Once Upon a Time in the West in the same space I'm using for stuff like Dredd and Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning. Gunfights are almost never anyone's favorite scenes in westerns; the appeal is more in the scenery and horses and weatherbeaten faces and general sense of atmosphere.

Still, these are movies that tend to be about groups of dudes shooting at each other. Netflix files westerns in the action section, but the company puts superhero movies in there, too, and that's a whole other thing. But 1993's Tombstone settles this question pretty easily, since it's really just a very good early-'90s action movie dressed up in Old West drag.

Indeed, it's packed with vaguely heroic Western music and wide-angle shots of gorgeous desert vistas and way too many scenes of couples making eyes at each other in saloons. It initially cast genre OG Robert Mitchum as the villain, though he injured himself riding horses before filming began and had to settle for a narrator role. As for the story, it treads the same ground as more than a dozen movies: the mythic tale of the Earp brothers and Doc Holiday and the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. But it's not fooling anyone.


That's because Tombstone has icy take-no-shit heroes and villains who laugh while they gun down innocent people. It has badass one-liners: "You gonna do something, or just stand there and bleed?" It has badass battle cries: "You tell them I'm coming! And hell's coming with me!" It attempts to turn "I'm your huckleberry" into a catchphrase and succeeds. It has Kurt Russell squaring his jaw and staring motherfuckers down. It's an action movie to the core.

Director George Cosmatos might've been trying to make an old-timey western with a few gritty revisionist touches, but this is the guy who made Cobra and Rambo: First Blood Part II. It's possible that he didn't know how to make another movie. In the opening scene, the criminal Cowboy gang rolls into a Mexican town and murders an entire wedding party, in a scene with obvious Peckinpah aspirations. But then they stroll on over to the banquet table and start eating the dead people's food, an over-the-top dick move and a clear sign that we're in action-movie territory.

But despite Cosmatos's pedigree, the actual action scenes here aren't all that memorable. The actual O.K. Corral shootout is pretty good, a Mexican standoff that turns into a prolonged battle. But the revenge montages are better choreographed and executed than the gunfights we see in real time. In one scene, Earp and his crew are surrounded by a river, and Earp's big move is to yell, "No!" a bunch of times and then just walk toward the main bad guy while shooting. And it works. It shouldn't work. If he's not going to devise some clever plan, he should at least do something cool, like leaping in slow motion while firing two guns at once. Or somehow locking a villain in an armbar. Something.

But if Tombstone falls a bit flat in this regard, it comes to life when all its extravagantly mustachioed character actors are strutting around and making threats at each other, playing verbal tough-guy games that can only ever end one way. Powers Boothe cackles. Michael Biehn glares. Thomas Haden Church yips. Sam Elliott growls orders. Michael Rooker squirms. Billy Zane prances. Billy Bob Thornton quakes with rage. Bill Paxton looks happy to be there. Charlton Heston and Jason Priestley and Frank Stallone are in there somewhere, too. It's awesome.


The setting is fun, too. The whole movie takes place in Tombstone, Ariz., a nowhere town that turns out to have a lot of silver buried near it. So all these prospectors are moving out there, getting rich, and blowing their money on gaudy shit, but it's still a lawless town under the thumb of the Cowboy gang. And for all the money flowing through it, there are still shootouts all the time, because nobody's figured out how to act rich yet. You know those first few scenes in Die Hard, where rough-and-tumble cop John McClane has no idea how to act at his wife's L.A. office party? This is an entire town full of John McClanes, and they don't know how to act around each other.

Kurt Russell, in spotless black clothes and boasting an enormous walrus mustache, makes a great Wyatt Earp, stolid and fearsome and down for whatever. Russell is one of our great action stars, a guy who can project charm even when he's being icy (Escape From New York) and cool mastery even when he's supposed to be a clueless boob (Executive Decision). As the movie opens, Earp and his brothers are moving to Tombstone to retire from crimefighting and make their fortune. But he isn't there to become a legitimate businessman; he intends to make money via ass-kicking credentials. The first thing he does upon arriving in town is to find the bar that's been taken over by outlaws, kick the baddest motherfucker in there out, and then hit the owner up for money.


Later, he has to do revenge-movie things, and he does them well. He's half of a witless romantic subplot with Dana Delaney, and that fits him way less comfortably than the mustache, but he does great work in holding this vast and unruly cast together. But he still hands the movie entirely over to Val Kilmer.

Kilmer has his own underrated action-star resume: Top Gun, Willow, Heat, Spartan, the action-ish Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. (He also played Wyatt Earp in something called Wyatt Earp's Revenge two years ago.) But his best-ever role is probably here, as Doc Holiday. He's a charming psychopath, a drawling and quick-witted gentleman who really only enjoys getting drunk and killing people. He's a hero in the movie, but he doesn't seem to give a fuck about doing good; he just happens to like the Earp boys. (At one point, he tells a comrade that Wyatt Earp is his friend, and he doesn't have a lot of friends. As far as character motivation goes, that's all you get.)


And so: He shoots a guy in a duel without putting down his cigarette. He makes fun of Michael Biehn's Johnny Ringo immediately after Ringo twirls a gun in his face. He even makes the good guys uncomfortable. Every time he talks to another character, he seems to be toying with him, figuring out how far he can push him before the guns come out. He's an absolute blast to watch, and he's really the one reason that Tombstone stands as a minor classic in whichever genre you prefer to slot it in. He can be our wingman anytime.

Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he's written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice,GQ, Grantland, and The Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.


Netflix Instant doesn't have to feel like a depleted Blockbuster in 1990, where you spend half an hour browsing hopeless straight-to-video thrillers before saying "fuck it" and loading up another Archer. Streaming services can be an absolute treasure trove, particularly if you like action movies, and especially if you like foreign action movies. Every week in this space, we'll highlight a new one.

Previous installments: Fearless | Red Dawn | Blue Ruin | The Man From Nowhere | Face/Off | The Chinese Connection | Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning | District B13 | Uncommon Valor |The Heroic Trio | Safe | Mad Max | Ip Man | Big Trouble in Little China | Sonatine | Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol | Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior | Charley Varrick | Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky | Dredd| 13 Assassins | Death Wish 3 | The Legend of Drunken Master

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