'Wild Bill' Reprises Gritty Old West
But there's little substance beneath the violence and grunge
NEW YORK — In a statement on his new western, ''Wild Bill,'' filmmaker Walter Hill notes that in the past ''much has been done to glamorize the frontier West,'' which in reality was ''all too often a time of abysmal ignorance, rude poverty, and senseless violence.'' Hill then asks why we ''continuously celebrate this historical moment?''
That's a good question, but it was fresher when filmmakers started to ask it about 30 years ago. While it's true Hollywood celebrated the old West in countless simplistic pictures from the early 1900s on, a wave of '60s and '70s films turned the old vision on its head. In revisionist hits like ''A Fistful of Dollars'' and ''The Wild Bunch,'' directors like Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah eagerly splashed ignorance, poverty, and violence all over the screen. Critics still debate the usefulness of these exercises, but there's no questioning the power they exerted over moviegoers in the troubled era of Vietnam and Watergate.
''Wild Bill'' follows this tradition so faithfully that western fans will find little in it they haven't seen before. The eponymous hero is Wild Bill Hickok, portrayed in a way that utterly rejects him as the romantic figure who strode through, say, Guy Madison's popular TV series in the '50s. Here he's dirty, dangerous, lecherous, and so ill-tempered that you wonder why a sane person would spend five minutes in the same town with him.
His girlfriend, Calamity Jane, is somewhat more civilized but still nobody you'd want to mess with. Complicating their eventful lives and on-and-off love affair is their lurking awareness that Bill has more than his share of enemies, rivals, and thrill-seeking kids who'd kill him just for the dubious glory it would bring. Needless to say, one of them eventually guns him down, and it's as sorry an episode as one would expect at the end of a life and a movie so drenched in down-and-dirty sourness.
Hill knows his way around action-film territory, having racked up a long list of credits ranging from ''The Warriors'' and ''The Driver'' to ''48 Hrs.'' and ''The Long Riders,'' among many others. His filmmaking is often vigorous and stylish, but you'll rarely find much going on beneath the violent surfaces of his hard-hitting plots.
''Wild Bill'' finds him at his most self-assured and least original. Devotees will enjoy his unabashed fondness for post-Peckinpah gore, grunge, and sleaze. Others will long for the days when Madison portrayed the same legendary character with a square jaw, a clean vest, and a moral code that made up in rectitude what it lacked in contact with the real world.
Jeff Bridges appears to have a great time wallowing in his wildly undignified role, and Ellen Barkin almost makes Calamity Jane seem like a character out of life rather than legend. The able supporting cast includes John Hurt as one of Bill's few friends, David Arquette as one of his many foes, Diane Lane as a woman he was once involved with, and Marjoe Gortner as (appropriately) a local preacher. Don't blink or you'll miss Keith Carradine as Buffalo Bill Cody and Bruce Dern as an unlikely gunfighter. The production designer, Joseph Nemec III, has cooked up a convincing replica of Deadwood, S.D., and Lloyd Ahern has photographed it in suitably dark tones.
It's a job well done, but given the nastiness of the picture, not necessarily a job worth doing.
* ''Wild Bill'' has an R rating. It contains explicit sex, vicious violence, and much vulgar language.