The year is 1876 and the legendary Wild Bill Hickok (Jeff Bridges) sits in a saloon in Deadwood and thinks about his life (most of which is seen in high-resolution, black-and-white flashbacks). Hickok was a renowned lawman and a sure shot, a man whose exploits made him famous across the west. Thanks to his friend, Buffalo Bill Cody (Keith Carradine), he even appeared on the New York stage and reenacted some of his greatest gun battles. Now, Hickok is aging. He is 39 years old, an old man by the standards of his profession. Though men like Charlie Prince (John Hurt) and California Joe (James Gammon) continue to spread his legend, Hickok is going blind and spends most of his time in a haze of opium and regret.
Hickok only has one true friend in Deadwood, Calamity Jane (Ellen Barkin). He also has one true enemy, an aspiring gunslinger named Jack McCall (David Arquette). McCall approaches Hickok and announces that he is going to kill him because of the way that Hickok treated his mother (played, in flashback, by Diane Lane). Hickok does not do much to dissuade him.
Based on both a book and a play, Wild Bill is a talky and idiosyncratic Western from Walter Hill. Hill is less interested in Hickok as a gunfighter than Hickok as an early celebrity. There are gunfights but they only happen because, much like John Wayne in The Shootist, Hickok has become so famous that he cannot go anywhere without someone taking a shot at him. Almost the entire final half of Wild Bill is set in that saloon, with Hickok and a gallery of character actors talking about the past and wondering about the future.
At times, Wild Bill gets bogged down with all the dialogue and philosophizing. (To quote The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly: “When you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk.”) Luckily, the film is saved by an intriguing cast, led by Jeff Bridges. In many ways, his performance was Wild Bill feels like an audition for his later performance in True Grit. David Arquette is intensely weird as the jumpy Jack McCall and Ellen Barkin brings the film’s only underwritten role, Calamity Jane, to life. Smaller roles are played by everyone from Bruce Dern to James Remar to Marjoe Gortner.
United Artist made the mistake of trying to sell Wild Bill as being a straight western, which led to confused audiences and a resounding flop at the box office. Ironically, years after the release of Wild Bill, Walter Hill won an Emmy for directing the first episode of HBO’s Deadwood, an episode the featured Wild Bill cast member Keith Carradine in the role of Hickok.