Wyatt Earp (1994) – Review

3 1/2 Stars

Wyatt Earp is one of the great flawed masterworks of the last forty years. Lawrence Kasdan directs Kevin Costner in a bio-pic of the famous lawman who attempts to protect numerous boom towns from outlaws and other dangerous men. Beautiful cinematography, an all-time classic score, and Costner’s stoic performance push this long western picture into the realm of American masterpieces. In a year when the academy was giddy over Forrest Gump, Pulp Fiction, and Shawshank RedemptionWyatt Earp was unfairly overlooked (outside an OSCAR nom for D.P. Owen Roizman) by audiences and critics, but the film holds up well and plays even better today, without the direct comparison to Tombstone, which bedeviled its initial release in the summer of 1994.

At over three hours in length Wyatt Earp is broken into three distinct periods in the life of not only Wyatt (Kevin Costner), but the entire Earp family. As a boy the young Wyatt yearns for adventure and the chance to join the fight against the South like his eldest brother. Under the strong thumb of his father Nicolas Earp (Gene Hackman) Wyatt is swayed in his immature ideals about life. The elder man teaches his clan that family is stronger than any bond on earth. A lesson Wyatt takes deeply.

The film allows time for the story to explain how Wyatt became a buffalo hunter, boxing referee, widower, drunkard, and eventual horse thief. He is scheduled for execution for the latter crime only to be rescued by his father.

The second-act centers on the particulars of Wyatt’s transitioning from broken man of ill-will to a steely eyed, stoic lawman. Sickened by the continual violence and dangerous profession Earp moves his brothers out to Tombstone, Ariz. to become the legal owners of a gambling establishment. This leads to a bloody vengeful war with Ike Clampet and his posse.

Kevin Costner is a perfect choice for Wyatt Earp and Kasdan is the right filmmaker for the material. The film is sprawling and dense, but never boring for a moment. While Tombstone is the more action oriented of the two films, Wyatt Earp is far more intelligent and artfully crafted. Val Kilmer’s Doc Holiday has become an iconic character, and admittedly Dennis Quaid’s portrayal of the same character isn’t as charismatic. That could be because this version is a more accurate interpretation of the actual persons and events. One of the best films of 1994.

Director: Lawrence Kasdan
Stars: Kevin Costner, Dennis Quaid, Gene Hackman

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