Bruce Fretts
December 08, 1995 AT 05:00 AM EST

Wild Bill

Current Status
In Season
Ellen Barkin, Jeff Bridges
Walter Hill
Drama, Western

We gave it a B+

You don’t have to wait long in Wild Bill (United Artists, R) to learn how James Butler Hickok (Jeff Bridges) earned his nickname. This vivid Western from writer-director Walter Hill (The Long Riders, 48 Hrs.) begins by galloping through the early exploits of the legendary gunslinger, an hombre so ornery he’d shoot a man just for touching his hat. Yet most of the action occurs during Hickok’s final days, as the opium-smoking, glaucoma-stricken marksman reflects on his life. Wild Bill succeeds as a character study of a man whose idiosyncratic code of justice eventually catches up with him. Bridges’ performance is a masterstroke of squinty-eyed bitterness, and he gets colorful support from Ellen Barkin (as kitten with a whip Calamity Jane) and John Hurt (as a dissipated British dandy). Unlike your average Kevin Costner horse opera, Wild Bill doesn’t try to turn the Old West into a myth or a metaphor. Nor is it overlong, clocking in at a lean, mean 97 minutes. But too-brief glimpses of a variegated cast ranging from pop-culture curios Christina Applegate and Marjoe Gortner to seasoned character actors Keith Carradine and Bruce Dern make you wonder whether Hill left an even richer film on the cutting-room floor. B+

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