Kevin Costner Rides Again

"This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." That often-quoted line from John Ford's "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" defines the tug of war between the classical and revisionist Western. Go for the myth or deconstruct it?

Lawrence Kasdan's three-hour-plus epic _B_Wyatt Earp _b_aims to be the last word on the legendary lawman, an ambiguous figure filmmakers have been mythologizing ever since his death in 1929. The legendary Earp, embodied by the serenely laconic Henry Fonda, was apotheosized in John Ford's spare and beautiful "My Darling Clementine" (1946), a movie blissfully unconcerned with the facts. The legend also prevailed in the now-dated "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" (1957), with Burt Lancaster's stolid Wyatt playing off Kirk Douglas's bitter, tubercular Doc Holliday.

Now, within months, we have two Earp sagas that move closer to the facts -- "Tombstone," in which Kurt Russell's Wyatt turned into a bloodthirsty avenging angel (and Val Kilmer stole the film as a suavely dissolute Doc), and Kasdan's research-heavy opus. It's perhaps no coincidence that these law-and-order Westerns have come out of Hollywood now: the anarchic Old West may seem disturbingly New to filmmakers in post-riot Los Angeles. Was Wyatt the Daryl Gates of his day -- a hero to some, a loose cannon to others?

Kasdan's "Wyatt Earp," starring Kevin Costner, is the first to give us Earp from childhood to middle age. The defining moment for this Wyatt, who starts life as an innocent aspiring lawyer, is the death of his young wife, Urilla (Annabeth Gish). In despair, he descends into drunkenness and horse thievery, but even after he pulls himself together and goes on to his famous exploits as a deputy, he's become a hardened, near-heartless man. The filmmakers want us to feel he's a tragic hero, living -- and killing -- for his brothers, unable to trust anyone who isn't "blood."

Gorgeously shot by Owen Roizman, designed with all the detail a $60 million budget can buy and pumped up with an overbearing James Newton Howard score, "Wyatt Earp" is big, solemn -- and barely alive. Kasdan's trouble is that he seems to want to print the legend and the facts. What results is a stately, curiously remote muddle, with all the structural problems that come with the biopic form. Kasdan and Dan Gordon's screenplay shows us the gritty violent reality of the West, where cowboys vomit at the sight of a bloody skinned buffalo. Yet when it comes to Wyatt's love life -- first with his wife, then with Josie Marcus (Joanna Going) -- its mushy romanticism is as phony as old Hollywood ever got. For a movie so sure of its importance, it seems oddly uncertain of what it wants to say.

In its second hour, when the Earp brothers clean up Dodge City and move on to Tombstone, the movie finds its rhythm. Dennis Quaid's ravaged, growly-voiced, volatile Doc Holliday sashays onto the scene and provides some dramatic sting. Costner seems more interested in being an icon than an actor. "Wyatt Earp" demands a performance that risks all; Costner would rather coast on his soft-spoken charisma.

It's in the interminable aftermath of the O.K. Corral shoot-out that "Wyatt Earp" completely wears out its welcome. Wyatt sets off to avenge the killing of his brother Morgan, picking off his enemies one by one. We feel nothing but impatience, because in three hours, Kasdan hasn't found the time to individualize the villains. What kind of a Western has anonymous bad guys? This is neither classic nor revisionist. It's just bad storytelling.