Combustible Celluloid
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With: Jeff Bridges, Ellen Barkin, John Hurt, Diane Lane, Keith Carradine, David Arquette, Christina Applegate, Bruce Dern, James Gammon, Marjoe Gortner, James Remar
Written by: Walter Hill, based on a play by Thomas Babe, and on a book by Peter Dexter
Directed by: Walter Hill
MPAA Rating: R for wild West violence and a sex scene
Running Time: 98
Date: 12/01/1995

Wild Bill (1995)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Never Touch Another Man's Hat

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Walter Hill's unsung Western Wild Bill is not a celebration of the legendary gunslinger. Rather, it visits him at the end of his career, going blind, smoking too much opium, and drinking too much whisky. He's tired, haunted by memories and mis-told stories of his so-called glory days. If Hill's favorite motif is characters stuck in unknown or unfamiliar territory, then Wild Bill Hickock (Jeff Bridges) is stuck on the wrong side of his own legend.

It begins at Bill's funeral, as his well-spoken English friend Charley Prince (John Hurt) narrates. We see some of Bill's exploits, usually involving some kind of altercation and very little honor. Then we hurtle forward to Bill's final days on earth, where an extremely inexperienced kid (David Arquette) wants to kill him due to a perceived slight regarding his mother. In truth, Bill loved the kid's mother (Diane Lane), probably more than he loved anyone else. Calamity Jane (Ellen Barkin) knows this, and sadly, resignedly wishes it were her.

The movie is awash in dreams and memories, presented in high-contrast, fuzzy black-and-white, and even the full-color waking moments seem exhausted and harsh, as if the light of day took the shine off of things. When the kid -- accompanied by a band of killers led by Donnie Lonigan (James Remar) -- finally corners Bill a bar, he spends a long, weary night trying to decide if and when to pull the trigger.

In short, Wild Bill is far from an action classic; it's more of an interior, free-associating examination of a life. Narratively, it has more in common with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford than it does any exciting, action-packed shoot-em-up Western. And this probably turned off most of the critics and audiences that saw it in 1995. But in retrospect, it is a very smart film, a near-great, challenging film, and one that deserves another look.

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