By Owen Gleiberman
Updated January 14, 1994 at 05:00 AM EST

How can you tell that Tombstone isn’t a revisionist Western like Unforgiven or a politically conscious art Western like Geronimo, but a big, messy smorgasbord of Old West cliches? You can tell because the characters wear mustaches that would have looked right at home on The Carol Burnett Show. As Wyatt Earp, the retired peacemaker who shows up in Tombstone, Ariz., to become a businessman, Kurt Russell sports a trim, sensible handlebar job, as cocky and angular as he is. By contrast, his brother, the honorable slowpoke Virgil (Sam Elliott), brandishes an upper lip that looks as plushly comfortable as an old sofa. Then there’s Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer), gambler, gunslinger, and dandy. With his fussy waxed ends and Vandyke, he might be a musketeer who got lost on the range. In this movie, mustaches aren’t just fashion, they’re character, the hairy signposts of a man’s worth.

Set in a lawless boomtown that’s so stagy and prefab I expected to see modern-day tourists wandering through it, this umpteenth version of the Wyatt Earp/O.K. Corral legend features whiskey-guzzling varmints and dance-hall harlots, showdowns over poker games, and a hero who disarms most of the local hooligans just by glaring at them. If only director George P. Cosmatos (Rambo) knew how to do something with cliches other than throw them into the pot and stir. A preposterously inflated 135 minutes long, Tombstone plays like a three-hour rough cut that’s been trimmed down to a slightly shorter rough cut.

About all that holds the film together is Kurt Russell’s droll machismo. Russell gets some sexy backchat going with Dana Delany, who, in the film’s one moderately contemporary flourish, plays a ”liberated” traveling actress (i.e., she’s not ashamed of liking sex). As the tubercular Doc Holliday, who spends the film getting sicker and sicker, Val Kilmer speaks in the absurdly cultivated tones of a Southern gentleman gone elegantly to seed. Kilmer works hard to give his scenes an undercurrent of outrageousness, but he’s not a glorious flake, like Brando or Christopher Walken; you never quite believe that the devil made him do it. By the end, when Doc lies on his deathbed, the film has turned into Camille with spurs, an idea that just about wilts on screen-but one that Carol Burnett, no doubt, would have gone to town with. C-