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Wild Bill

movie review out of 4 Movie Review: Wild Bill

Starring: Jeff Bridges, Ellen Barkin
Director: Walter Hill
Rated: R
RunTime: 98 Minutes
Release Date: December 1995
Genres: Action, Drama, Western

*Also starring: John Hurt, Diane Lane, David Arquette, Keith Carradine, Bruce Dern, Christina Applegate, James Gammon, Marjoe Gortner, James Remar

Review by Steve Rhodes
1 star out of 4

WILD BILL is a biographical movie about the life of Wild Bill Hickok. Amazingly, no one dies in the movie. Well, zillions of people are shot and forever stop talking, but death involves pain on the part of the victim and a feeling of emotion by the killer or at least by the bystanders so whatever it was, it could not have been death.

Perhaps, WILD BILL is famous writer and director Walter Hill's homage to the grade B Westerns that I saw as a kid. On the other hand, the pretentious cinematography (Lloyd Ahern) and music (Van Dyke Parks) of this picture is full of great portents leaving little doubt that the movie has some significant meaning. What, I still have no idea.

WILD BILL starts in the Nebraska Territory in 1867. In the first scene, Wild Bill (Jeff Bridges) single-handedly kills four armed men mainly because one of them messed with his hat. Throughout the show, many people are killed for touching his hat. Wild Bill stays in most of the famous gun slinging towns of the Old West from Abilene to Deadwood, and he usually becomes the sheriff. Being the law, has no effect on his own lawlessness, and he kills everything that moves if it offends him. He even accidentally kills his own deputy, again showing no remorse. His motto seems to be: if it moves, shoot it.

The first act of the show is a live version of the mayhem of a Hieronymus Bosch triptych. Constant action; constant killing. People shooting at the feet of prostitutes to make them dance and people's ears being shot off to make a point. Check your brains at the door because Bill can annihilate up to six people at once even if they all have their guns at the ready. You don't want to attempt to analyze the likelihood of any of the scenes.

In the second act, we have a lot of melancholy looks between Wild Bill and his semi-girlfriend Calamity Jane (Ellen Barkin). We even have them making love to a loud rendition of The Battle Hymn of the Republic on a player piano. But, we are told that "a man of action, Bill found romance perplexing."

In the tragic final act leading up to the aces and eights confrontation with Jack McCall (David Arquette), there is the foreboding of doom. Through out the show one of the best parts is the narration by Charlie Prince (John Hurt). Hurt's acting is mediocre, but his rich narration adds a lot of atmosphere. In case you care, we learn that Wild Bill was an actor for many years, but "as a thespian, he was by all reports terrible," which is okay since he was such a good murderer he did not need another profession.

The script is the biggest problem with the show. WILD BILL is not GANDHI, and Walter Hill should have lighted up some. Deadwood is described thus, "Like the Old Testament, Deadwood had become a place of prophesy and vision." A little humor would have helped. The characters are interesting as caricature, but not as real people. There is no one in the show that the audience cares whether they live or die. Only Ellen Barkin attempts to breath a little life into her character. Jeff Bridges, a notorious overactor, is restrained, interesting, but unreal in WILD BILL. Diane Lane is abysmal as McCall's mother Susannah, and David Arquette gives a lifeless version of McCall.

There actually is more good to the show than the narration. The sets (Joseph Nemec) of the muddy streets, the claustrophobic small rooms, and the large birdcage style jail are effective in illustrating the misery of the period. The cinematography is imaginative although sometimes too pedantic and certainly too repetitive. The rust colored exteriors and the scary nighttime interiors are good in conveying the image of importance to the show. The scene transitions are done with white like the white flash of a gun. All flashbacks are in grainy and overexposed black and white footage. At first, this worked quite well, but after a while the images are shown on shifting diagonals, and the overexposure increases until the images are almost invisible.

The editor (Freeman Davies) loses all control. There is an incomprehensible black and white opium induced dream flash back that goes on forever. If you need to go to the restroom, do it during this scene and take your time. Perhaps you want to visit the snackbar as well and get a popcorn refill. You will miss nothing, and the scene will still be going when you return.

WILD BILL runs too long at 1:38, but for some reason the movie is intriguing, and I never wanted to leave. We saw it on opening night at a totally empty theater so it does not seem destined to be a blockbuster. It is rated R for massive killings, general violence, and sex, but no real nudity. I do not recommend the show to anyone, but it would be okay for most teenagers since the violence is more cartoonish than gory. I award the movie a single * for no reason other than it kept my attention, and I did not totally hate it.

Copyright 1995 Steve Rhodes

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