THE LEGEND of Wyatt Earp (15) is the legend of America. The country, like the man, started fresh and idealistic, before being brutalised by violence, which it turned out to have a talent for. Lawrence Kasdan's new three-hour version of the story makes its intentions plain from the start: to re-write Earp as epic, as a thunderous parable of America, and to present a more ambivalent Wyatt. For the first half-hour of the film, when Wyatt is a 15- year-old (played by Ian Bohen, the only time it's not Kevin Costner), growing up in the cornfields of 1863 Iowa, it works well. Never mind that every line of Gene Hackman, as Wyatt's father, Nicholas Earp, has
a thumping sententiousness: "Remember this, all of you, nothing counts so much as blood. The rest are just strangers." The lines are as much signposts for the audience as for Nicholas's growing sons.
We certainly need some, because the rest of the film is as parched - of ideas and characterisation - as the Arizona desert around Tombstone, where Wyatt becomes deputy in 1879. In the vast terrain of the film, the characters are as well- defined as specks on a horizon. Hackman has his opening salvo and returns once to save Wyatt from being hanged, never to be seen again. When Wyatt's brother Morgan is killed, 160 minutes into the film, we watch his expiring body as if it were a stranger's. It is. Isabella Rossellini plays a whore known as Big Nose Kate. She doesn't explain why she got the name or anything else.
The heart of the film is Kevin Costner's Wyatt, ageing from 21 (when skilful lighting more or less covers his wrinkles) to a brief, grey-haired coda. But it is a heart that beats, at best, faintly. The film is structured around Wyatt's development, in three acts: from rascally innocence, befouled by personal tragedy and the wickedness of the world; to apprentice lawman, finding his toughness and skill; to the unrepentant bruiser who must have the gunfight at the OK Corral. The problem is that these developments are sketched rather than explored. Kasdan, who co- wrote the film with Dan Gordon, relies on a lazy cinematic shorthand - close-ups, for instance, of Wyatt recoiling at his instinctive viciousness.
This is supposed to be a harsher Wyatt than we've seen, so we have a few smouldering looks, the odd tough line, and a perfunctory trial for the shootings at the OK Corral. The scenes are stilted and poorly shaped - the trial slips by - and nothing links up, betraying the film's origins as a projected mini-series. As Wyatt, Kevin Costner, his face growing fleshily into a bland middle age, is flabbily imprecise, no match for lean Henry Fonda, who played the part in John Ford's My Darling Clementine, a rake-thin figure of overweening piety.
By tradition every Wyatt Earp film is stolen by Doc Holliday, the devil-may-care gambler beside Wyatt's steady law enforcer. Dennis Quaid's Doc is no exception, with some choice sardonic blasts. He comes closest to the consumptive original of the character, having shed 43 pounds to leave his face as hard and wrinkled as a walnut. But even his performance seems skimped and stagey, less of a
gas than Val Kilmer's sharp- shooting maniac in Tombstone and less intriguing than Victor Mature's broody sensualist in My Darling Clementine.
One area in which the film does score is the gunfight at the OK Corral, which is carefully built up to, and then short and brutal, no more than a few seconds. As the black-clad Earp brothers march to the fray, like convening undertakers, Kasdan has a camera at every angle. …