Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Wyatt Earp (1994)

Too Much Too Late

- Kevin Costner's 1994 western biopic Wyatt Earp was too much too late. Clocking in at over three hours, covering just about all of Earp's life, and released at the heels of another (and more successful) Wyatt Earp western, Tombstone (1993 - released just six months before Wyatt Earp), Wyatt Earp was almost doomed to fail. On paper, the film was a certainly a failure: taking in only 1/3 of its budget at the box office and "winning" a handful of Razzies. However, taking into consideration its own qualities, Wyatt Earp is definitely flawed but actually not the completely awful film that its reputation would have you believe.

Allow me to start by telling you what Wyatt Earp did right. First of all, the film looks great. Owen Roizman's cinematography work was rightly nominated for an Academy Award and the direction by Lawrence Kasdan (although it is rumored that Costner took over directorial duties on occasion) is, visually, quite inspiring.

Secondly, the Doc Holliday character is portrayed exceptionally by Dennis Quaid and is, unfortunately, really the only well-conceived character in the entire film. I was surprised at just how good Quaid was in the role, of course, since he has done little else in his career that I have admired (other than The Alamo (2004) of which he was fantastic). I can safely and confidently say that Quaid's performance here in Wyatt Earp is the best performance I have ever seen him give and was criminally overlooked by the Academy in 1994. Quaid is simply great and makes the entire film watchable with a fascinating and highly historically accurate portrayal of Holliday, without needing to go over-the-top as the often colorful character. It is a shame that this film is Wyatt Earp and not "Doc Holliday."

Now let me tell you what the film did wrong. Firstly, Wyatt Earp is not particularly well written by Lawrence Kasdan and Dan Gordon. I would not go as far as saying that the script single-handedly ruins the film, but the cliched nature and cheesiness of much of the characters and dialogue sure does not help the film out in any way. The Doc Holiday character is given a lot of clever lines but much of the rest of the dialogue is about as clever and interesting as Oat Bran and the characters (again, outside of the Doc Holiday character) feel underdeveloped. The film's large cast of recognizable faces is also a huge disappointment. The performances outside of Quaid are all just mediocre: Kevin Costner (Wyatt Earp), Michael Madsen (Virgil Earp), Bill Pullman (Ed Masterson), Gene Hackman (Papa Earp), Catherine O'Hara (Allie Earp), etc. - it is as if  all of the actors are on cruise control.

But most importantly, the film was too long (at 191 minutes). As a general rule, the fact that a film is long is not an incriminating offense; actually, there are many brilliant films that stretch beyond three hours. However, Wyatt Earp is slow and uninteresting for much of its long runtime. The film does begin to get interesting but only until nearly two hours have already passed! I believe that the film could have easily begun at around that point. Sure, the audience would have missed seeing Earp as a child, as well as other events, but none of that was interesting at all. The film could have covered any kind of characterization and/or necessary backstories perfectly fine with dialogue and the result would have been a stronger, tighter film.

In the end, Wyatt Earp is a mixed bag of good and bad aspects - certainly not the flat-out awful movie that its reputation would suggest. But Dennis Quaid's Doc Holliday and good cinematography only go so far and, due to its sizeable amount of lackluster elements, this Kevin Costner western ends up in the mediocre half of the western genre.

CBC Rating: 6/10

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