I often talk about how environment and being in the right mindset have so much to do with how one processes a movie. If one, for example, watches a horror movie at 2 in the afternoon with a bunch of sunlight in a room with no other people on a laptop, it’s probably not going to play the same way that it would in a packed, dark movie theater. With that having been said, it’s hard to imagine anything better than watching Tombstone, one of the finest westerns we have, at an actual old west ghost town with Doc Holliday himself, Val Kilmer in attendance. That’s something I recently had the good fortune of experiencing and it was, quite simply, a real treat.
This was a recent screening put on by the Alamo Drafthouse as part of their Rolling Roadshow. Basically, movies are screened in a fitting environment with an experience tapered to fit that movie unfolding around it. In this case, we were brought out to J. Lorraine Ghost Town in Manor, Texas. Upon arrival, we were greeted by a bustling old west town. Saloons, music, cowboys. It was all there. They even gave us cap guns! So, we got to wander around and take everything in before sunset. It really set the mood in a way a theater simply couldn’t.
Once the sun went down on the old west, as it were, the night’s special guest, Val Kilmer, took the stage to help introduce the movie. Val Kilmer is currently battling throat cancer and, as such, he hasn’t been making all too many public appearances. Despite this, Kilmer brought the charm and, even though he had a difficult time speaking, enthusiastically introduced the 1993 classic. It speaks volumes about Kilmer as a performer and it was intensely endearing to witness.
Val Kilmer then retreated to the audience and Tombstone kicked off on the rather large, inflatable outdoor screen that had been set up. This is one of those movies that I hadn’t seen in ages. It’s one of those things that one just accepts as a quality piece of entertainment in the way we accept water being wet. But having not seen it in some time, it was remarkable to be reminded just how stunningly great it is on just about every level. Not the least of which being the absolutely stacked cast led by Kurt Russel as Wyatt Earp, Sam Elliott as Virgil Earp, Bill Paxton as Morgan Earp and Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday.
Westerns are one of the true staples of Hollywood. They’ve been around forever and, while not running off of an assembly line anymore, they still pop up from time to time and probably will continue to do so until humanity stops filming things. But Tombstone truly does have everything one could want and it’s blisteringly entertaining for all of its 2 hour and 10-minute runtime. It’s pacing is exceptional. Despite having a large ensemble cast, director George P. Cosmatos and writer Kevin Jarre manage to define every character in a short period of time in precise and exacting fashion. We know who everyone is. We know why we should care about them, or why we should despise them. It’s downright efficient.
The movie itself feels so classic in that relatively simple, good vs. evil, law vs. lawless kind of way. It’s a timeless tale of righting wrongs and revenge. It also just looks astounding. Many old westerns were made on a dime and, while quite a few managed to transcend, a great many others just don’t hold up to modern scrutiny. Tombstone may play better now than it did in 1993. It’s the kind of movie we simply don’t see that much anymore. A blockbuster built around an old notion with pure starpower and storytelling as its main weapons of entertainment. But we should see movies like this more often. If only it were that easy. Perhaps I’m just dizzy from how much I enjoyed the experience, but upon a revisit it’s hard not to think of this as some sort of rare magic trick. This is the kind of movie I live for.
While the story is lean and all of the surrounding elements such as the production design, score and costumes are all on point, this is a performance-driven piece. While the entire core ensemble is excellent, not to mention the ridiculous cast of supporting players that includes (deep breath) Powers Boothe, Michael Rooker, Billy Bob Thornton, Dana Delany, Stephen Lang, Thomas Haden Church, Paula Malcomson and even Charlton Heston, plus a particularly fine performance from Michael Biehn, It’s Val Kilmer who steals the show in a way few performers have ever stolen a show in such a stacked cast.
Val Kilmer is a damn fine actor who has lent his talents to some true classics, such as Heat and True Romance, but this is undoubtedly his finest hour. Doc Holliday is charismatic, quippy, layered and every bit the badass that many men, in private, quiet moments, dream of being. The fact that this man is literally inches away from his death bed but has the integrity to fight alongside his companion Wyatt is downright inspiring. Kilmer disappears into the role in a way that is nothing shy of brilliant. It’s so far from an actor putting boots and a hat to go play cowboy. It’s commitment. It’s bold. It’s singular. And in terms of quotable lines, on a rewatch it’s an embarrassment of riches, with “I have two guns, one for each of ya” and “Oh, Johnny, I apologize; I forgot you were there. You may go now,” being just a couple of standouts.
In my mind, it is now one of the true historic failings of the Academy that Val Kilmer was not nominated for an Oscar for this role. It’s downright unfathomable watching it now. But maybe that gets to a larger point. Time has been insanely kind to Tombstone. An entire field full of people, Kilmer amongst them (which unquestionably added something to the mix), sat for two hours watching a 26-year-old movie on a Saturday night over Labor Day weekend and (not to speak for everyone here) enjoyed the heck out of it. Awards are nice, but they don’t define something. The work speaks for itself. Cream makes it to the top and greatness is remembered. We remember Tombstone, for it is truly great, and Val Kilmer will always be our Huckleberry.
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