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Wild Bill Hickok, famed lawman and gunman of the Old West, is haunted by his past and his reputation. He is loved by, but cannot love, Calamity Jane. Dogging his trail is young Jack McCall, who blames Bill for abandoning the boy's mother and destroying her life. McCall has sworn to kill Bill, and Bill's ghosts, his failing eyesight, and his fondness for opium may make McCall's task easier. Written by
Jim Beaver <email@example.com>
James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickock: Soldier, buffalo hunter, lawman, adventurer, wastrel, whoremonger, opium user, syphilis-carrier, brawler. Wild Bill wasn't just worldly, he was world-class worldly. Yet there was a boyishly but noble, almost sensitive charm to this raging bar fight of a man. His murder by the hand of a coward smacks of Greek tragedy, though he was spared the final indignities of disease and self-abuse. "Wild Bill" pretty well accurately chronicles the life of the man. Walter Hill has beautifully established the enigmatic poetry of him. Jeff Bridges perfectly embodies his spirit, while his friends, "Calamity Jane" (Ellen Barkin), Charley Prince (John Hurt) and "California Joe" (James Gammon) provide letter perfect foils, thematic analyzers and comic relief. With the success of "Deadwood" on HBO, "Wild Bill" would probably be a deserved hit with audiences now. At the time, a movie whose gaminess made a Leone western look positively Disneyish by comparison was probably too off-putting for audiences. Now, it's time to examine the beauty of the performances amidst the accurate ugliness of actual conditions in mining towns like Deadwood in 1876. This is Barkin's best performance, Gammon's most charming and Hurt's most beautiful line readings. Who could ever forget the haunting look on the face of Song Lew (Karen Huie), proprietress of the opium den after saving the doped out Bill. Or Bill's disgust with the "opium of the masses" Marjoe Gortner (himself a former evangelical preacher) doles out to the suckers in the form of religion. How the movie beautifully integrates the old joke that "the best way to find a whore is follow the church bells" into the storyline. Christina Applegate is even very effective in her peripheral role, with her baby face and voluptuous body, a child whose eyes already reflect a soul dead from surrender to his conditions. "Wild Bill" is strong stuff indeed. If I can fault writer-director Walter Hill (and I believe it is still too soon to render a final judgment on this movie), I would fault his decision to shoot the flashbacks as erratic dreams, with unstable camera and black-and-white. I'd have chosen one OR the other, not both. No matter, "Wild Bill" will continue to haunt me, as great films do. for years to come. I just wish he'd added at least one flourish so effectively used in "The White Buffalo," another less well made, but impressive movie about Hickock. That would have been to include the scene of Bill passing the mountain of bleached Buffalo bones. For Bill's passing was perhaps a fitting climax to the death of that era; and, with it, the death of the "American West" of legend.
I give "Wild Bill" a "9".
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