KEVIN'S GATE

If there was one legendary figure of the Old West who could unambiguously be called a good guy--and there probably wasn't--Wyatt Earp is surely not the fellow. This sometime lawman, sometime criminal wasn't actually despicable, like Billy the Kid (although reports suggest Earp had less charm). He was a person of courage and filial loyalty. But he was also a shady character--a vengeful killer, a failed businessman, a compulsive gambler and an occasionally caddish husband. He was, in short, a human being, which makes the role a commendable acting stretch for Kevin Costner. He plays Earp in Lawrence Kasdan's new movie biography, but, unfortunately, the Kevster is still convinced that he ought to be the modern Gary Cooper, and he has the Oscars and box-office receipts to make Hollywood play along. Wyatt Earp may mitigate that clout, however--it's three hours that feel like six, and while an hour of it could easily be trimmed, the two remaining would still be a bore, mainly because of Costner's performance.

I'm not the world's biggest Gary Cooper fan, but the star of High Noon and Sergeant York was a fiery, exciting actor compared to Costner--and, especially, compared to Costner in Wyatt Earp. Costner's been tolerable in a few roles, mostly because the movies (JFK and The Untouchables) were interesting enough to warrant tolerating him. The only good acting I've seen him do was in another Kasdan Western--Costner's buoyant, rowdy performance in Silverado. And he wasn't too offensive in his first all-out vanity production, Dances With Wolves, which, though wildly overrated, was a sweet, relaxingly watchable film. That's about all that can be said for it, but that's more than can be said for Wyatt Earp.

The historical Earp was famous for the bloody, half-minute-long shoot-out he, his brothers Virgil and Morgan and their tubercular friend William "Doc" Holliday had with several malcontent roughnecks in the vacant lot next to Tombstone's O.K. Corral in October 1881. Wyatt, alone among the gunfighters on both sides, escaped unhurt, but it was a Pyrrhic victory--he got in trouble with the law, and both of his brothers were later shot (Morgan fatally) in reprisal. It more or less ended Wyatt's career as a lawman. This episode--and Wyatt's life before it and his long life after it-- makes for a juicy, dramatic story. But it isn't a wholesome story, and that's what Kasdan and Costner (who co-executive-produced the film) try to give us. In the press material, Costner's partner, Jim Wilson, is quoted as saying, "If you look at Kevin's career, he's always chosen these characters that have unusually strong moral values, are very strong-willed, forward-thinking individuals . . . I think it stems from his being part of a very close, supportive family." It's like an introduction Pat Robertson would give a guest on The 700 Club.

Accommodatingly, the script by Kasdan and Dan Gordon tries to cast Wyatt as a nice boy who loved his brothers. Setting this theme in place is Gene Hackman as Wyatt's father, who presides over the first quarter of the film (whenever Costner allows Kasdan to cut away from him, that is), but is mercifully absent from the rest. His big line is, "Nothing in life is as important as family. Everyone else is just strangers." I've never enjoyed this wonderful actor less, and it isn't Hackman's fault--every line he speaks is some piece of fraudulent, family-values folk wisdom like this. His part might have been written by Dan Quayle's speechwriter. Among the other epigrams that this paragon utters is a lecture on due process: "I'm a man who respects the law. After your family, it's about the only thing you have to believe in." He then demonstrates his respect by telling Wyatt that he shouldn't hesitate to kill anyone who doesn't share this view. That first section of Wyatt Earp is the film's most ghastly, in part because of the waste of Hackman, but mostly because Costner is playing youthful innocent ardor. The movie's nadir comes early, at least: the scene in which Wyatt proposes to his first wife, Urilla (lovely Annabeth Gish). The two-dimensional earnestness with which Costner recites his amorous declarations is too self-absorbed and joyless even to be laughed at.

This is what's most infuriating about Wyatt Earp, aside from the possibility that it may kill the happy renaissance that the Western genre has been seeing lately. Costner doesn't want Wyatt to be a complex character. The opportunities the script afforded him for platitudinous piety seem to be exactly what attracted him to it.

The movie keeps pushing the idea that this is the kind of guy we should emulate--one who'll kill you if he's reasonably sure you're in the wrong, who makes an obsessive creed of family, one who takes no guff from the womenfolk and who always pays back in kind those who wrong him. This last, in fact, is partly why the film is so unconscionably overlong--it can't end until it's shown us Wyatt killing every last one of his enemies. Yes, there is good work in the film. A handsome fellow named Linden Ashby is an appealing Virgil, Catherine O'Hara fits right in to the setting as one of the disapproving sisters-in-law, and I also liked Tom Sizemore's soft-spoken Bat Masterson. Owen Roizman's cinematography is luminous--those who go to Westerns mainly for Frederic Remington vistas and horses pounding across the range may pass the film pleasurably enough on Roizman's work alone.

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