The following story is true...give or take a lie or two.
It's the tail-end of the Roaring Twenties and Hollywood is in transition from Silent to Talkies. Tom Mix (Bruce Willis) is the hottest action star in town and king of the action-packed Western genre. Life is good. Money's great, girls are plentiful, and he has 16 automobiles to play with when he's not stunt-riding for Alfie Alperin's (Malcolm McDowell) latest picture. But when Alfie insists on doing a historical pic about Wyatt Earp, Tom finds himself playing host to the real Earp (James Garner), who is brought on board as a consultant.
Tom and Wyatt become fast friends and Tom gives Wyatt the full Hollywood experience, overt and underground. But things complicate when Wyatt runs into Alfie's wife Victoria (Jenifer Edwards), who happens to be a former lover. She asks him to keep an eye out on her delinquent son Michael, which he does "because she asked". Needless to say the two get sucked into a murder mystery.
A fun Noir-lite action flick soon unfolds, playing lovingly tongue-in-cheek with Western and Noir tropes from car and horse chaces to corrupt cops to a good old fashioned shootout, all unfolding in the glamour and glitz of 1920's Hollywood. In typical Blake Edwards fashion the scenes are quick, fun, decadent, and slightly bawdy, like a rich dessert you love to eat know is bad for you. The movie's greatest strengths are the visuals, with incredible art deco sets, a bank-breakingly big fleet of vintage automobiles (even a Deusenberg!) and an airplane, and vintage costumes and hair styles that remain mostly free from aestetic pollution from the late 1980s. The action scenes are well coordinated and manage to pay homage to the action scenes of the silent era, yet remain plausible enough for today's audiences. The dialog is pithy and fun, if uninspired for the most part. And while much of the acting is slightly underplayed (possibly in homage to old movies) it remains a real joy to see James Garner convincingly kick some ass as an aging wild west legend.
Yet while the movie, much like most of Blake Edwards' fare, remains a load of fun, it never manages to rise beyond popcorn status, which is likely why it remains relatively unknown despite the star power behind it. The difference between the old frontier and modern LA culture never gets more than a slight visual or dialog cue. Only passing references and nods are made to the clash-of-times and cultures despite having a real player from the old west (Earp) seeing first hand Hollywood's reinterpretation of his travails as mass entertainment. The changing times with the new technology and values similarly never gets much focus and remains a backdrop. It's like Edwards tried for subtilty in these matters, and face it, subtile is not the stong suit of a man best known for the Pink Panther. It feels so much like Edwards missed an opportunity here to explore the Postmodern dynamic of the Image becoming more real than the Reality as potentially represented by Wyatt Earp filtered through Tom Mix. Also brushed upon was the concept that being a wild west sheriff and being a movie cowboy were more similar than different, but once again this incredible opportunity for something meaningful was left mostly unexplored.
What results is a fun if forgetable Popcorn movie which missed the chance to become a modern day classic. It's well worth a couple hour's time on a lazy Sunday, but you can probably life without the DVD in your collection.
Diesel*: 3 1/2 (out of 4); great set and costume design, good music, manages to almost capture the feel of the time/place
Punk**: 2 1/2 (out of 4); features corrupt cops and producers, a dark conspiracy, noir-esque elements, two plucky cowboys standing up against the system, yet remains rather light and vapid in these areas.
Acting: 3 (out of 4); great actors with okay dialog, slightly underplayed or occasionally overplayed.
Production: 3 (out of 4); fast-pased direction, fun if vacuous dialog, great action correography, average script, mostly predictable plot. Missed opportunities for deeper meaning.
Overall: 3 out of 4 Stars. A fun popcorn movie for a lazy day.
* "Diesel" measures the movie's capture and use of the Diesel era aestetic and/or ethos, including set design, costumes, culture, music, technology, and direction.
** "Punk" measures how well the movie uses or explores punk themes or values.