In terms of accuracy and authenticity, there's no question that "Wyatt Earp" is an attempt by co-writer/director Lawrence Kasdan and Kevin Costner to get it right, to finally give the legend of the notorious lawman/outlaw a fair cinematic shake. But in doing so, they have crafted an interminably long (3 hours, 9 minutes), numbingly slow and woefully underdeveloped epic that is more likely to bring on drowsiness than enlightenment.
Taking Earp from youth to middle-age, the film begins with a brief allusion to the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, then drifts into its central narrative with Earp as a youngster.Earp's father, played superbly by Gene Hackman, brings up his sons to believe that "Nothing counts as much as blood," meaning that family comes first. He also instills in the brothers a sense of patriarchal order, along with strong feelings about justice, which will dominate Wyatt's life in the years to come.
Hackman dominates the first section, but his role is all too brief. He's missed when he summarily disappears from the rest of the film, and you may wonder why Kasdan doesn't allow us to see his reactions to the lifestyle adopted by his sons in later life.
As Costner assumes the role of the adult Wyatt, we meet a youthful, vigorous adventurer who is deeply in love with the girl back home (Annabeth Gish) in the Midwest. But soon after they marry, she dies of typhoid while pregnant, and Costner becomes brooding and miserable for the rest of the film.
The bulk of Kasdan's narrative concentrates on Wyatt's years as a controversial lawman, recruiting his brothers as he attempts to bring law and order to a pair of boom towns, Dodge City and Tombstone, ignoring his drug-addicted wife for the affections of a Jewish actress and clashing with politics, powerful local villains and disgruntled sisters-in-law.
During these lengthy sequences, we meet Doc Holliday, always the most colorful figure in films about Wyatt Earp, and Dennis Quaid, who lost more than 40 pounds to assume the role of the tubercular dentist-turned-gambler, jump-starts the film's energy whenever he's on screen. Of course it helps that Kasdan has given him the best lines.
But one of the film's worst problems is its inability to satisfyingly develop any of the supporting characters, including Doc. Quaid manages to bring some heft to the role, despite its being underwritten, but others do not fare as well. When the movie is over, it's clear that we haven't gotten to know any of Wyatt's brothers, or any of the villains. ("Tombstone," last year's Wyatt yarn, which was itself no great shakes, did a much better job of fleshing out the characters.)
There are certainly a lot of familiar faces, however - Jeff Fahey (who was also in "Silverado," the last Western teaming of Costner and Kasdan), Mark Harmon, Michael Madsen, Catherine O'Hara, Bill Pullman, Isabella Rossellini, Tom Sizemore, JoBeth Williams, Mare Winningham, etc. Too bad none of them gets an opportunity to create a particularly memorable character.
"Wyatt Earp" is at its best in its scope. Kasdan has pulled out all the stops to get a huge look, painting gorgeous vistas, using uncountable extras and opening up the Old West in a way that is rare these days. But considering how well-respected Kasdan is for his early writing ("Raiders of the Lost Ark," "The Empire Strikes Back") and then his own writing-directing efforts ("Body Heat," "The Big Chill," "Grand Canyon"), it's a genuine disappointment to see him make a film that is so weak in so many areas.
And though I've harped about this a lot lately, it must be said that the film's main weakness is its length. This material is simply not compelling enough to sustain more than three hours. In fact, during the screening I attended this week, audience members began to laugh out loud at an extended flashback that occurs during the film's epilogue. After sitting there for three hours they apparently could not believe Kasdan's nerve at going into yet another set-piece when the film had already overstayed its welcome.
"Wyatt Earp" is rated PG-13 for considerable violence, profanity and vulgarity, along with a sex scene and some partial female nudity.