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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Tombstone’ Latest in a New Line of Designer Westerns : A few shoot-'em-up scenes are stirring, but there’s not much else to relieve a script loaded with cliches.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The actors in “Tombstone” (citywide) playing bad guys and good guys and in-between guys spit very convincingly. They also slouch well and reach for their pistols with aplomb.

So much for authenticity. Just about everything else in this aggressively overlong Western about trouble in Tombstone seems posed and facetious. It’s the latest in a new line of designer Westerns--not quite as loony or self-infatuated as “Posse” but close enough. It’s supposed to be a “real” look at the events leading up to the gunfight at the O.K. Corral but mostly it looks like a bunch of overweening actors playing cowboys.

In boom-town Tombstone, Ariz., circa 1879, life, unlike the whiskey, is cheap. Brigand cowboys have stirred things up: They shoot off their pistols at the theater and in the streets; they pop weak-willed sheriffs and laugh menacingly. Heading the menacers are the red-shirted Curly Bill (Powers Boothe) and Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn), who is especially dangerous because he’s full o’ book learnin'--he even knows how to speak Latin .

So does his aristocratic counterpart, Doc Holliday, who, along with the brothers Earp, stand for justice in Tombstone. Val Kilmer’s Holliday is classic camp performance, although it may not have started out that way. His Southern drawl sounds like a languorous cross between early Brando and Mr. Blackwell. Stricken with tuberculosis, his eyes red-rimmed, Doc coughs delicately and matches Ringo line for line in Latin. He also shoots straighter than anyone else in the movie--his powers of recuperation make Rasputin seem like a pushover.

Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell), unlike his brothers, Morgan (Bill Paxton) and Virgil (Sam Elliott), takes awhile to warm up to his righteousness. (Elliott, by the way, is the only cast member to look convincing in a droopy mustache, though his voice is so gravelly it’s practically gravel.) Retired from keeping the peace, Wyatt is in town to make a pile of dough. But bullets keep winging him.

This new “cynical” take on Wyatt isn’t exactly a revelation, since no one really believes those old Western myths anymore anyway. Besides, his cynicism is just a prelude to his inevitable conversion to good-guy-ism (which is the oldest ploy in the book). He even falls hard for Josephine (Dana Delany), a music-hall star with a porcelain complexion who thinks he’s a “tall drink of water.” He, in turn, goes for the subtle approach in romancing. Out on the riding paths with her, Wyatt looks at Josephine’s steed and says, “That mare’s in season.”

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Since the dastardly cowboys all wear a red sash, the film at times seems to be a contemporary gang movie in Western drag. This may not be as far-fetched as it sounds--"Posse” worked in references to the Rodney G. King beating. But the parallels are plunked in without any resonance--or reason. The bad guys appear to be making a fashion statement. The same goes for the good guys. The Earps dress in strict black and white, funeral director-style.

A few stirring shoot-'em-ups help relieve the logjam of cliches. Director George P. (“Rambo”) Cosmatos does an OK job at the O.K. Corral. But even the good stuff goes on for too long. When the film ended and the credits rolled and the actors once again galloped toward the camera, a friend leaned over to me and moaned, “Is this starting all over again ?”

‘Tombstone’

Kurt Russell: Wyatt Earp

Val Kilmer: Doc Holliday

Michael Biehn: Johnny Ringo

Powers Boothe: Curly Bill

A Hollywood Pictures presentation of a Sean Daniel, James Jackcs, Cinergi production. Director George P. Cosmatos. Producers James Jacks, Sean Daniel and Bob Misiorowski. Executive producers Buzz Feitshans, Andrew Vajna. Screenplay by Kevin Jarre. Cinematographer William A. Fraker. Editors Frank J. Urioste, Roberto Silvi. Costumes Joseph Porro. Music Bruce Broughton. Production design Catherine Hardwicke. Art directors Chris Gorak, Kim Hix. Set designers Tom Benson, Richard Prantis, Siobhan Roome. Set decorator Gene Serdena. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes.

MPAA-rating: R, for strong Western violence. Times guidelines: Graphic bullet wounds and gunplay.


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