Wild Bill (1995) – Review

2 Stars

Walter Hill is a director who has shown a deep seeded fascinated with the western genre throughout his career. By his own admission, he approaches all of his films as if they were part of this almost forgotten genre. Working hard to deliver a Tombstone type experience, Hill is up against a wall with his revisionist take on the legendary gunfighter/lawman ‘Wild’ Bill Hickok. Anchored by an off-beat performance from Jeff Bridges, Hickok never comes off as anything other than a grumpy killer. The movie is slow-paced and the final shootout is poorly executed. However, this is not a total failure, there are enough interesting scenes that I began to grow frustrated that the screenplay moved in episodic segments with undefined linear continuity.

The town of Deadwood, South Dakota is overrun with sinful behavior and lawlessness. That’s before the arrival of the man who would be sheriff of theses ungodly dwellers, Bill Hickok (Bridges). Lurking in the shadows of the township is a mysterious stranger (David Arquette) hellbent on killing Hickok. The years of fighting and slaying men on battlefields and barrooms has taken its toll on Bill. He finds a bit of solace in the arms of a former lover Calamity Jane (Ellen Barkin), but he remains haunted by the identity of the stranger and their connection with a woman from his past.

An Englishman (John Hurt) is Bill’s friend, travel companion, and the chronicler of his tales. The movie uses this character as a narrator, but even he doesn’t understand the man he reveres. When Hickok shoots a challenger down in the streets, his friend stays in the empty bar pouring himself drink. The romance between Jane and Bill is handled like two petulant children with communication problems. He’s hot for her one moment, then pushes her away in an instant. The overall sense being that nobody was allowed to know or care for this troubled man. The well-researched screenplay goes to pains in devoting time to Hickok’s glaucoma issues, heroic deeds in the war, and other factual accounts.

Wild Bill feels like a knee-jerk reaction by the producers to capitalize on the renewed interest in the genre after years in a dormant state. It is an unfocused movie that never clearly carves out a point of view on its title character. Hill, who so clearly relishes the opportunity to work within the context, still hasn’t made a western as cherished as his modern-day action flicks.

Director: Walter Hill
Stars: Jeff Bridges, Ellen Barkin, John Hurt

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