May 2, 2010

Catalog titles! Disney is unleashing two of their most beloved action films from the 90’s with Tombstone and Armageddon. The first follows Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell) and his brothers (Sam Elliot, Bill Paxton) as they team with Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer) to fight off the Clantons, Curly Bill Brocius (Powers Booth) and his gang of cowboys, while in Armageddon Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis) leads a crew of his oil drilling team (including Will Patton, Ben Affleck, Owen Wilson, Michael Clarke Duncan and Steve Buscemi) with assistance from NASA to destroy a giant Meteor heading to kill everyone on Earth. These are manly movies, even if they have love interest subplots that detract from men doing men things – like getting in gunfights and drilling for oil. My reviews of the Blu-rays of Armageddon and Tombstone after the jump.

First things first, though, the Blu-ray transfers are excellent, but the supplements are weak as hell. Both films had two disc special editions, and both had commentary tracks. And where Disney got the rights to all the Criterion content for their earlier release of The Rock on Blu, they did not do the legwork here. Armageddon only comes with two trailers and a music video. Tombstone does not include the director’s cut, but does offer a making of (27 min.), the director’s storyboards (4 min.), two trailers and seven TV spots. Of course, both films come in 1080p, and as Armageddon was never released in America anamorphically, it’s a big step up from the Criterion DVD. Both also come in 5.1 DTS-HD, and in terms of sound and vision, these are great – demo disc-quality.

Tombstone is the better of the two movies, simply by virtue of its cast. Russell, Paxton, Elliot, Kilmer, Powers Booth, Michael Biehn, Thomas Hayden Church, Jason Priestly, Dana Delaney, Charlton Heston, Billy Bob Thorton, Stephen Lang, Billy Zane, Jon Tenney, Michael Rooker, Terry O’Quinn, and Frank Stallone (with Robert Mitchum as the narrator). Holy shit that’s a cast! And watching the film again, I was more engaged this time than the last time I saw it (in the theater) simply because it’s the sort of large cast of famous and the “would-be-famous-later” casts that every couple of minutes someone turns up or has a scene, and you think to yourself “I can’t believe all these guys are in one movie.”

As a take on the Earp legend and the showdown at the OK Corral, 1993’s Tombstone can claim to be better, or at least more entertaining than Lawrence Kasdan’s take on the subject matter in 1994’s Wyatt Earp, which proved to be a meandering wash-out when it should have had some great themes, and all that. But when you stack either against John Ford’s perfect My Darling Clementine, they’re not going to stand a chance. Tombstone also came out in 1993, as the industry was moving away from the sort of action beats this film has. Basically, there’s no poetry in the film, and many of the shoot outs lack any sense of geography or choreography. Then again, there’s no slow motion, but there are two “death montages” where Earp and his buddies just take out random dudes who were bad guys. This fine, but perhaps because of the legend, there’s no a lot action beats that feel much more than perfunctory.

But this is a “print the legend” version of this story, and that’s fine. What it points out is that Kurt Russell is one of the rare actors who can be commanding without having to do anything superficially flashy, and that’s impressive as he’s up against one of the most entertainingly flamboyant performances of that decade. Kilmer’s gaunt, sickly Doc Holiday is an actor’s dream come true, as it’s filled with tics and brio. It’s a showboating performance and Kilmer eats every scene he can with his Southern accent and pale white look. Oh, consumption. Their friendship is the heart of the movie, and it – above all the gunplay – is what makes the film work. Now that director George P. Costmatos has passed on, Russell has been outed as the auteur of the film. It sounds like it was a rough shoot. Perhaps that’s why the directors cut and the commentary were not included.

Armageddon is one of those kitchen sink movies either you get into or don’t. I don’t, though I’ve grown to love Bay when he’s at his Bayest. The thing that makes me laugh most about the film is that it’s supposed to be something of an action film, because Bay is an action director. But there’s no action. The main characters drill. That’s not cinematic, and Bay is not interested in getting us to understand how drilling works. In some ways the end is very similar to the sequence in Wet Hot American Summer where Joe La Truglio tells us how awesome something that’s happening off screen is. I don’t know if there’s a way to make drilling cinematic, but that’s not my problem, that’s something that should have been addressed much earlier on than the Blu-ray release of a twelve year old movie. The film sets up a “men on a mission” plot, where Harry Stamper (Willis) and his crew of roughnecks are sent into space to drill into an asteroid. This is a good set up, and it could be kick ass, but it takes them forever to get into outer space (though the training sequences are some of the best parts of the film), but I would probably have cut from the stamp of approval on their apps to the launch sequence. With the film running 151 minutes, you get to feel the weight of the running time, and that’s never a good thing. It’s bloated, and it sinks some – but not all – of the straight camp appeal of a film like this.

Then the boys are in space, and as Bay has been parodied for mercilessly, there’s a sequence where the president is about to do the wrong thing, so it’s a ticking clock with guns pointed where the obstacle is ultimately stupid. This worked better in The Rock, where missiles are trained on the base, because it’s that sort of movie, but the problem with this film is that you have entire sequences that – if removed – don’t negate anything that happens before or after. I tend to think it’s better to have obstacles that are organic to the situation, but if it works for you, that’s just my two cents.

There’s also a crudely inserted love story with A.J. (Ben Affleck) dating Harry’s Daughter (Liv Tyler). She gets a love scene involving animal crackers, and gets to watch a lot of television. Billy Bob Thorton as the head of NASA is stuck in a similar role, but he seems actively involved in what’s going on, so he comes off a bit better. There’s also the classic Bay montage of around the world people looking on at what’s happening, and a whole lot of ra-rah patriotism/coke commercial visuals. The film has become dated now, but there’s lot of little things to enjoy, like the moments of Owen Wilson goofing, and Thorton does deliver a committed performance. Willis was on the verge of giving up acting in this film, and he mostly rests on his laurels, but it’s an interesting counterbalance to Affleck trying to find his feet as a leading man-type. Affleck has the edges of his sense of humor, but he’s in a bit over his head, and it’s fun to watch. The film as a whole is just too long to be a really guilty pleasure, but there are moments that make you realize why it’s fun to have a love/hate relationship with Michael Bay.

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