As is sometimes the way, Tombstone is a fantastic film that really seems to have defied some long odds to come together as well as it has. Kevin Jarre, who wrote the main script, was initially due to direct the film, but was fired just after he directed a number of scenes featuring Charlton Heston. George P. Cosmatos is the man who now has his name listed as director, but Kurt Russell played just an important, and maybe even more important, role in getting everyone back in the game and getting the movie finished. It's not surprising. Russell had a plum starring role in a movie chock full of great actors being allowed to do great things.
The film is all about Wyatt Earp (Russell) and his brothers (played by Sam Elliott and Bill Paxton) as they settle into life in Tombstone and try to enjoy some peace and quiet. Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer) is also in town and it seems like everyone may get to enjoy life a bit more with the days of being a lawman in Wyatt's past. But people don't always get what they plan for and Tombstone soon starts to see more and more violence in its streets, so much so that the pressure mounts for Wyatt to return to his old role. That is something that he just doesn't want to happen, but he may not have a choice in the matter if some of the more trigger-happy cowboys keep causing so much trouble.
Kevin Jarre's script was, apparently, pared down quite a bit from its initial size, but what's here is all good stuff. There are some superb lines of dialogue and characters are well sketched out. Despite how densely populated the film seems, everyone is given a decent share of the screen-time. Oh wait, that's not quite true. All of the men are given enough time and space, but most of the women in the movie are given fairly short shrift. Dana Delany fares better than most in the role of Josephine Marcus and Paula Malcomson and Joanna Pacula have one or two good moments, but Lisa Collins and Dana Wheeler-Nicholson needn't have bothered turning up, considering the little that they have to do. In fairness, the film is a look at Wyatt Earp and his friends and family and that famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral so decisions would have been made to keep the focus on the men about to get themselves involved in a historic shoot-out.
The direction, from whoever was in the big seat, is absolutely fine, but the cinematography, set design, etc. all pale in comparison to the work done by the casting department. Simply put, Tombstone has one of the best casts in a 1990s movie that you can think of. Let me just reel off the better-known names and see how long the list gets: Russell, Elliott, Paxton, Kilmer, Delany, Pacula, Powers Boothe, Michael Biehn, Charlton Heston, Jason Priestley, Stephen Lang, Thomas Haden Church, Michael Rooker, Harry Carey Jr, Billy Bob Thornton, Billy Zane, Wyatt Earp (you read that right, he's a distant relative of the lead character), Terry O'Quinn and the voice of Robert Mitchum.
Feel free to re-read that list and soak up just how much quality is scattered throughout it. The fact that, despite so much competition, this film ends up being owned by Michael Biehn and Val Kilmer, in their separate scenes and also any that see them sharing the screen, just shows how good those two actors are. One moment in particular, with Biehn's Johnny Ringo showing off his gun-twirling skill before being delightfully mocked by Kilmer, is up there with the very best in the Western genre (maybe even THE best, in my opinion). Russell is very good in the main role, as you'd expect, but Wyatt Earp is the unshowy, earnest heart while Biehn and Kilmer get to be a lot more flamboyant and fiery.
While not an entirely perfect film, Tombstone somehow manages to put so many individual great moments together that it feels almost like an instant classic. It becomes more than the sum of its parts, but that's because all of those parts are so well cast.