I must confess, I’m not much a fan of the western genre. While only a recent handful of the dusty tales have genuinely appealed to me (including ‘Silverado,’ ‘The Quick and the Dead,’ and ‘Unforgiven’) I typically don’t seek out these features. The strongest exception still standing, though, is ‘Tombstone.’ In its calculated subtle fashion, director George P. Cosmatos’ re-telling of the legend of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and the infamous events of the OK Corral reaches out and, before you’re aware, has grabbed you by the collar and commanded you witness the events of two families, one town, and the perpetual struggle between lawfulness and savage revenge. In cavalier fashion, Hollywood Pictures Home Video (an extension of Disney’s Buena Vista) delivers this glorious Vista Series DVD that is wonderful to behold and definitely worthy of purchase, with no regrets.
The Earp brothers, Wyatt (Kurt Russel), Virgil (Sam Elliot), Morgan (Bill Paxton), and their wives arrive in Tombstone, Arizona in 1879 in an effort to escape their previous stints as peacemakers, now intent upon making their fortunes and settling down. In short order, Wyatt also meets up with his faithful friend, Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer), who is "positively enraptured" at the idea of running a small business alongside the Earps. Unfortunately, such is not to be the case as the Earps encounter the Clanton bunch and their entourage of outlaw cronies who collectively call themselves "The Cowboys." Headed by Curly Bill Brocious (Powers Boothe), Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn) and Ike Clanton (Stephen Lang), the gang of outlaws identify by their red sashes and their gunslinging approach to self-proclaimed justice, intent upon running Tombstone for themselves. While Wyatt maintains he is "retired" as a peace officer, older brother Virgil is unable to stand by and watch the Cowboys terrorize the citizens while he and his siblings rake in the dough at the Oriental casino. Of course, such an assertion of law & order doesn’t sit well with the Cowboys who, after being slapped around and beaten down by the Earps, proclaim war between the two clans (leading up to the fabled gunfight at the OK Corral). And though the Earps emerge victorious from the storied standoff, Wyatt suffers the loss of his brother and proclaims a war of his own on the Cowboys.
Truthfully, I’m no expert on the history of the Earps, the Clantons, nor the events that took place in Tombstone, Arizona (recalling that westerns are not my forte). While the film reeks of authenticity (clearly apparent visually but also well-documented in the disc’s featurettes and commentary), I can’t really speak to it’s proclamation that it is finally revealing the truth of the events that had taken place during the period, something previous film incarnations failed to do. No big deal, though, since this is a captivating story no matter how truly accurate it is. And while I have to believe a bit of artistic license was taken to help the production meet its commercial goals, this film excels above and beyond other modern day westerns in that it’s not bashful about delivering itself a "western" – that is, it thankfully dispenses with the need to develop itself as some sort of quasi-western with a current day music video quirkiness and teeming with teeny-bop idols a la ‘Young Guns.’ (‘Tombstone’s’ only transgression is the useless casting of ‘90210’ dirge Jason Priestly who, thankfully, is insignificant enough not to get in the way here.)
Speaking of its cast, ‘Tombstone’ gets highest marks for assembling an ensemble cast that doesn’t digress into plodding and sometimes senseless "ensemble cast" pacing and screen time parity. These actors work together very naturally, none seeming to ever steal scenes from one another yet each successfully adding more depth and believability to each other’s role, unafraid to appropriately rise above or bow in deference to another character. And while it’s truly difficult to laud one performance over another here (they’re all that good), I would give a slight edge to Val Kilmer’s captivating eclectic yet pained portrayal of Doc Holliday. Since Kilmer was largely the reason I resisted seeing this film upon its original release (I was still annoyed with his hard-body heartthrob role in the annoying ‘Top Gun’), he simply blew me away in this picture. Repeated viewings of ‘Tombstone’ are made all the more enjoyable thanks to his incredibly consistent, multi-faceted performance of the suave, steely-eyed, and incurably ill gunfighter.
Thankfully, Buena Vista saw fit to revisit ‘Tombstone,’ rescuing it from the previously-released inept DVD issue and giving it just recognition in this new Vista Series deluxe edition. Immediately, the handsome packaging shows that someone understood the meaning of this film. Presented in a sepia toned slipcase that reveals a beautiful gatefold package that holds the two discs, this one has become one of my new favorites in terms of package design. It’s fully illustrated throughout, including the fold-out booklet and clever replica map. The only drawback here, I suppose, is the fact that this one would be best preserved in a clear polypropylene sleeve since there is no protective plastic as found on the Amary keep cases.
Onto the discs themselves, the first offers ‘Tombstone’ in a glorious anamorphic widescreen presentation framed at the film’s original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The image here looks terrific albeit noticeably edge enhanced at times. While predictably dominated by amber tones, this is a colorful production nonetheless and is faithfully rendered throughout the program, deeply saturated but without any instance of bleeding (on-screen action notwithstanding). Of most concern to me was the contrasting bright daylight scenes and the opposite nighttime sequences yet those come off looking terrific without ever looking overexposed nor grainy or murky. The black levels are appropriately deep and the detail is crisp throughout (again, save for the sometimes evident edge enhancement). In all, the image looks great, made better by an excellent source print that’s practically free from any noticeable blemishes.
The THX-certified soundtrack, offered in both 5.1 Dobly Digital and DTS mixes, is impressively active. Though it’s expected that the gunfights would make good use of all channels, there’s also a steady amount of directional effects (horses galloping about and lightning cracking in the nighttime sky) not to mention some very well placed ambient sounds (from saloon interiors to wooded exteriors) that work well to deliver a wide soundstage that never seems to diminish. The low end gets a decent workout though not to excessive degree. Bruce Broughton’s score sound so much richer on this disc than the previous and the dialog manages to remain clear and understandable throughout.
And while the stepped-up treatment of the feature film would be enough to satisfy most fans, there’s also some great extras to be found in this package. Disc 1 features a running commentary from director Cosmatos that’s generally interesting. It’s obvious that he immersed himself in the production, congratulating not only himself but his terrific cast and crew as well. The only misgivings I have about his narrative are his propensity to sometimes merely restate the on-screen action, his frequent repeating of earlier comments, and just a few lulls in his monologue. This is nit-picky, though, as it’s still quite entertaining to listen to his perspective on the picture. My only regret is that the cast (especially Russell, who’s excellent at commentaries) weren’t available to add to Cosmatos’ comments or, better yet, lay down an ensemble commentary of their own.
Disc 2 is where the rest of the goodies can be found. It starts with an interesting 3-part featurette, "The Making of Tombstone," which includes segments covering "An Ensemble Cast," "Making An Authentic Western," and "The Gunfight at the OK Corral." It’s not one of the deepest documentaries you’ll find as it has difficult delving below the surface (promotional) level of the production. Still, it offers some fun and informative glimpses behind the scenes and offers some enjoyable interviews with the cast and crew. Next up is an interactive Tombstone timeline that recounts the actual historical events. Following are the original storyboards that depict the OK Corral standoff. A clever inclusion is a screen-viewable reprint of the Tombstone Epitaph, an edition of the actual town paper that relays the incidents of the OK Corral shootout. It’s interesting to read though I’ve never gotten comfortable trying to read extensive copy from my TV screen. Finally, there’s a DVD-ROM game, "Faro at the Oriental: Game of Chance," which I’ve yet to actually play (I’m not a gambling man).
In all, I found this Vista Series edition of ‘Tombstone’ to be quite compelling in content, quality, style, and price (a must-by at around $23.00 at most DVD outlets). I certainly hope there will be more notable titles to be presented in this fashion. And though I feel there could have been even more content that could have been included on the somewhat sparse Disc 2 (more documentaries, please), this release is very much appreciated and one which I consider among my favorites in my personal film library – and I’m not even a fan of westerns, remember?