Ty Burr
June 24, 1994 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Forget the South: In Hollywood, it’s the West that’s always rising again. The latest boom was triggered by Dances With Wolves and Unforgiven, oaters of epic intent whose saddlebags are weighted with profit and Oscars. Their success has written the rules by which the New Western must play, so Tombstone tells of the shoot-out at the O.K. Corral with an Unforgiven sourness in its mouth, while Geronimo tries to wipe away Dances‘ naivete with the caustic of history.

The unapologetic hardness of Tombstone‘s central character, Wyatt Earp, gives it a freshness compared with previous filmings of the story. And the glint of delight in the portrayer’s eye may turn out to be what sets it apart from Kevin Costner’s Wyatt Earp, due in theaters this week. Kurt Russell has been running from his Disney image since he was in tennis shoes, but this is the first time his rough, tough, son-of-a-sailor act doesn’t seem like overcompensatory shtick.

He doesn’t have to ”act,” really, since Val Kilmer, as Doc Holliday, does enough for everybody in the movie. As a cultivated, tubercular dandy, Holliday functions as Tombstone‘s seen-it-all comic relief: When Wyatt and his brothers (Bill Paxton and Sam Elliott) are nose-to-nose with the Clantons, Holliday is able to puncture the machismo with a single drawled mot. It’s as if he had seen too many Western movies (this one included) to be surprised, and his soft cynicism marks him for death at the same time it puts us on his side. Kilmer’s feathery talent ensures that we stay there.

Unfortunately, Tombstone becomes a noisy vigilante flick in its last half hour, and Holliday drops out of sight. We’re meant to buy the notion that Wyatt becomes an avenging angel after the death of one of his brothers, killing Clantons, Claibornes, and anyone standing nearby. In other words, he becomes William Munny at the end of Unforgiven. But a director as good as Clint Eastwood could barely bring off this balancing act, and George Cosmatos ain’t Clint Eastwood. B

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