In George Stevens’ film “Shane”, when excitable homesteader Frank Torrey (Elisha Cook Jr.) is gunned down by the enigmatic hired killer Jack Wilson (Jack Palance), the director deliberately amplified the volume of the shot to emphasize the violence inherent in a death by gunfire. By using a subtle but simple sensorial shock technique, Stevens was able to momentarily stir the audience from their complacency as passive spectators to make the lethal act more disquieting and thus invest the likelihood of similar consequences for other innocents with an intensified emotional immediacy.
In “Tombstone”, director George P. Cosmatos takes a similar but more extreme approach, by continually pummels the viewer with seismic storms of thundering hooves and explosive gunplay, almost continually abetted by Bruce Broughton’s muscular scoring which sings out with the dramatic import of what has or is about to occur with all of the subtlety of a claxon horn. Whether this approach is meant to immerse the viewer in the intensity of the violent confrontations, the results continue the fascinating confusion modern cinema has in conflating brute intensity with excitement. While it is possible to find immersion with the film’s reckless momentum, it is a strenuous form of pleasure. There is no question that one may emerge with the feeling of having been physically worked over by the film’s aural assault alone.
“Tombstone” doesn’t tread any particularly new territory that hasn’t already been steeply embellished by previous versions of the story, though in relating the familiar story of Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell, slightly inconsistent but with genuine highs), his brothers and Doc Holliday (an astonishing career performance by Val Kilmer) against Ike Clanton (an unrecognizable Stephen Lang) and the Cowboys, the carnage has been elevated to an absurdist level. One would have to reach back to Roger Corman’s “The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” to find a find a movie comparable in its willingness to undercut the visceral potency of its own historical highlight merely by a miscalculation of the overabundant quantity of bloodletting featured throughout the entirety of the film, producing a literal numbing of the senses from overstimulation.
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