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Uurrpp!

Kevin Costner makes a mess of a cowboy legend

When seated in front of a three-hours-and-then-some movie, impatient filmgoers sometimes begin a mental editing process, wishing that the story were moving faster. Do we need this many detailed dancehall scenes? we asked during Malcolm X. Couldn't Kevin Costner's life as a solitary frontier soldier take up less time? we wondered in Dances with Wolves. Of all the 200-minute epics in recent years, only JFK justified (nearly) every frame.

But Wyatt Earp will have you glancing at your watch in record time. We get a few seconds of Costner as Earp, waiting in a saloon for the O.K. Corral gunfight to begin. Just as he gets up and saunters off for the fight, the movie flashes back, which is a standard enough narrative device. The surprise, and yes, the horror, comes when we realize that we're going all the way back to Earp's childhood. We learn that young Wyatt was an unexceptional child. He plays at being a Yankee soldier in the Civil War, like his older brothers, but his homily-spouting father (played with a melancholy, lazy resignation by Gene Hackman), who is apparently the dullest man in the West, prevents him from acting on his imagination.

So, nothing has really happened yet, and the seconds are creeping by, when the older brothers suddenly return from the war. One of them is badly wounded. Okay, you think. Here's where the tension will begin. They'll be bitter and abuse Wyatt and make him grow up faster so the story can finally start. But no, the two brothers are also nearly devoid of personality. They tease Pappy about his bromides; Hackman actually has a speech on how families have to stick together -- "You can trust blood, but everybody else is just a stranger." From the way the brothers laugh you know old Pappy's lines were cliches even then, before the invention of the talkie, yet Hackman blathers on, looking more mournful by the minute.

Scene after pointless scene then follow. I'll skip ahead to the part where Wyatt Earp finally becomes unintentionally funny. Earp falls in love with one Urilla (Annabeth Gish) -- at times I thought Costner was calling her "Gorilla" -- then weds and impregnates her, whereupon she up and dies of typhoid.

Maybe these developments would have carried some pathos if Costner's Earp weren't so empty. But Costner's performance is amateurish; his line readings wouldn't have won him a callback if he had auditioned for the role, and when Costner-as-Earp responds to the loss of his wife by taking to drink, he looks for all the world like Gene Wilder chugging Woolite after his sheep has left him in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex.

Costner has never been a great actor, though he was fine enough in A Perfect World, but his incompetence here is shocking. He tries to convey his character's drunkenness by simply looking grim and staggering wildly. He's so bad, in fact, that you have to begin spreading the blame. Let's throw a few shovelfuls on director Lawrence Kasdan, who earlier guided Costner through a more nimble Western, Silverado. Did Kasdan really mistake the dullness in Costner's eyes for Eastwoodian anger and resolve? Did he listen to Costner mutter his cliches and imagine that he was onto archetypal heroic speech patterns? Directors are supposed to protect their actors, but Kasdan lets Costner show his ass (this time only metaphorically). And Kasdan's camera positionings and movements are absurdly self-important. He apparently felt the need to demonstrate that they had sky back in those days.

Finally, composer James Newton Howard, described in P.R. material as "one of the busiest talents in the industry today," is certainly working hard here. Every time Kasdan has his unfortunate cinematographer tilt his camera up, "Give me more sky!," Howard's score swells like a balloon, even though absolutely nothing is happening on screen.

I could go on and on, just as these filmmakers did. Let's just say that Wyatt Earp starts bad, then turns ugly. By the time the celebrated gunfight arrives, Kasdan's narrative is so confused that he doesn't make us understand what the fight is about, or even who the opponents are. Later, after Earp's brothers have been bushwhacked by more mystery villains, Earp sets off to kill people we scarcely recognize. "Who is that guy?" I kept asking. "And why is Wyatt Earp shooting him?"

The emaciated Dennis Quaid (he lost over 40 pounds to play Doc Holliday) is the one good thing here. His lines aren't much better than Costner's, but he at least reads them with a little style. I would have gladly watched a movie about his Doc and the gal he loved to hate, Big Nose Kate (Isabella Rossellini), but Quaid doesn't have much screen time. I hate to think he physically tortured himself to appear in this misbegotten oater.

 
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