Looking Back: Wild Bill (1995)

Every movie Walter Hill makes is a western. It doesn’t matter if the film in question is a dust and wagons horse opera, an 80’s-set biker musical, an landmark “buddy-cop comedy,” or an L.A. gang fable. Hill shapes his narratives on the notion of the wild west, in which masculine figures in lawless landscapes are defined by their often violent actions. Okay, Hill’s “Brewster’s Millions” remake is a stretch to include in this bunch but there are, even in small doses, qualities there that are unmistakably in line with his other films. His films have characters who all feel mythic, taking on quests that, regardless of setting, could all wind up in an empty town full of tumbleweed, weary horses and forgotten corpses, laying face down in the hot sun.

“Wild Bill” is the story of Wild Bill Hickock (played by Jeff Bridges), the dangerous lawman/gunslinger who winds up in Deadwood, South Dakota and immediately finds law to both uphold and break.

Some of the film is in black and white and it’s never clarified if Hill means this to suggest the past, Hickock’s memory, a version of history as presented by Hickock’s memory or a combination of the three. We’re meant to question just how “true” the events we’re witnessing are, as everything has a larger than life quality. That’s exactly the point and precisely the reason why looking for historical accuracy is besides the point. This is about the legend of Bill Hickock, which shape and even poison the perception of who he was, to us and himself.

Hill’s screenplay, based on Thomas Babe’s play “Fathers and Sons” and Pete Dexter’s novel, “Deadwood,” jumps through timelines and incidents ranging from comedic (like Bruce Dern’s wheel chaired gunslinger challenging Bill to a shoot out) to jarringly brutal.

Early on, we see Wild Bill gun down a room of opponents. His justification: “don’t ever touch another man’s hat.” He’s introduced as a punk with an itchy trigger finger, then a Marshall who is no less dangerous.

Bar fights in westerns tend to look as staged and carefully choreographed as an annual production of The Nutcracker, but in Hill’s hands, a bar fight is mean and messy. Watching Wild Bill tear a bar apart is akin to seeing farm hands struggle to wrestle an angry bull to the ground.

Westerns like this are fun, as there’s no one in a white hat to actively root for, nor a sense of morality to gain. Nothing about Wild Bill or Deadwood itself seems eligible for redemption, as the moral rot is too deeply ingrained. Unlike Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” or even George P. Cosmatos’ deservedly celebrated “Tombstone,” this is an expensive 90’s western in which we enjoy the barbarity of the title character and immediately give up expecting a hero’s journey of rediscovery.

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Even with a strong resemblance to the real man, Bridges is an odd choice for the title role. Yet, as underappreciated villainous turns in other films would confirm, he’s fascinating to watch as an individual without an acknowledged sense of right or wrong. Bridges adds weight to Hickock’s monumental pride and inner fire. Another unusual but admirable casting choice is Ellen Barkin as Calamity Jane, who is depicted taking joy both in adding to Hickock’s legend and engaging in casual sex with him. There’s a strength in Barkin’s quirky characterization.

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Like “Tombstone,” in which teen star Jason Priestley was effectively cast in a supporting turn, Christina Applegate is surprisingly good here, adding gusto to her turn as a no-nonsense call girl. There’s also Dern, John Hurt and even David Arquette, all good as figures who know their association with Hickock all but guarantees their place in history. Keith Carradine, who was playing Will Rogers in Broadway at the time of the film’s release, puts in a nice cameo as Buffalo Bill.

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Hill has made better westerns, particularly “The Long Riders.” His “Wild Bill” jumps around too much to sustain momentum but it’s better than its brief run in theaters would have you believe. There’s excitement and fascination in watching Bridges play a man so nasty, lawless and mean. Notice I don’t dare say a thing about his hat.

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