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'Tombstone' Makes Crime Look Better Than Love

January 27, 1994|LYNN SMITH | Lynn Smith is a staff writer for The Times' View section

In "Tombstone," gunslinger/lawman Wyatt Earp seeks a peaceful domestic retirement in the Arizona Territory with his brothers, Doc Holliday and all their women, but falls in love with an actress, is forced back to peacemaking by a violent crime wave and winds up in a bloody vendetta with the bad guys that goes way beyond the O.K. Corral. (Rated R) *

The prologue to this movie tells us we are about to see "the earliest example of organized crime in America." But the violence much more resembles modern-day street gangs--Bloods and Crips in spurs. Massacres inspired by personal slights. Drug-related shootings (in this case, opium). Even gang members targeted by their attire (in this case, red scarves for the cowboys).

No wonder kids who weren't raised on Westerns and don't much care for the ones they've seen on TV responded to this one. The Old West never seemed so familiar.

"I thought it was great," said Jeffrey Djernaes, 5.

"I thought it was really great," said his friend Austin Blount, 7.

"It was exciting," said Lauren Kampff, 10.

One hopes this blood-soaked movie was not meant for children, although it seemed to draw more than the number usually found in R-rated movies. Some came with adults, some without.

Austin said some parts made him sad, particularly the opening, when an entire wedding party is massacred and "when some of the good guys got killed."

Holly Robison, 13, said she normally doesn't mind seeing shooting as long as people are just shot and fall down.

"I don't like to see them suffer," she said. "This was too bloody."

In this reincarnation, Tombstone is a sort of sin city, with 24-hour gambling, drinking and opium. Earp's wife loses herself in laudanum, while Holliday is on the verge of death from his excesses throughout the movie. R-rated sex is basically limited to one suggestive seduction between Holliday and his girlfriend.

Amanda Smith, 12, said the movie reminded her of Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven."

"It had the same concept," she said, "a really good guy who's good and who turns bad. And turns out good again. Except this one is more complicated."

In these films, the hero may kill people. But he feels really bad about it. In this one, Earp kills countless more cowboys than the three the encyclopedia credits him with. But as a thoroughly 1990s antihero, he cries and asks a lot of philosophical questions.

He receives some pop psych and pop poetic answers. Some of these musings might be accessible to kids. But when Earp goes on a bloody rampage after his brother is killed, Holliday's explanation ("Make no mistake, it's not revenge he's after. It's a reckoning.") escaped me as well as the kids.

Amanda didn't think the movie had a message. Wyatt Earp "shot all these people because he wanted to get revenge, and it didn't bring him any happiness. He was still in pain, and he didn't get in jail or anything. He shot a ton of people, and he lived happily ever after."

But younger children who can't help but see stories and characters in black and white were clear on who was good and who was bad.

"The good guys won," Austin declared. "They killed all the bad guys."

For most, it seemed to be the action that kept their interest for a quick-moving two hours and 15 minutes. Or maybe it was the authentic-looking sets and costuming that nearly drew me back in time, despite some of the corny dialogue and plotting.

Some kids said they appreciated the acting, particularly Kurt Russell as Earp and Val Kilmer as Holliday. "All of them were good," said Marie Mallat, 12.

Brandon Kampff, 13, said he liked the flashes of humor, such as when a dangerous gunslinger tries to impress Holliday with his fancy moves, and the intoxicated Holliday responds by showing off similar moves with his cup.

Whatever kept their interest, it wasn't the love story between Earp and the actress--a romance-novel kind of chemistry between a strong independent woman and a tall, dark, semi-articulate stranger.

"What love story?" asked Austin.

"Love story," mused Marie. "Was that another movie?"

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