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The Quick and the Dead

As of this writing, my local multiplexes are still plagued by a defiant lack of good and/or interesting material. In fact, this year’s season of garbage is approaching its nadir, as the Oscars are quickly coming up to divert everyone’s attention. Mercifully, a friend of mine came to the rescue. She loaned me copies of two DVDs, with the statement that these two films were her absolute favorites. I had vaguely heard of them both, but I didn’t really know much about either of them. And as soon as I took a closer look at the cases, I knew immediately which one I had to start with.

The Quick and the Dead was released back in 1995. That’s important to note, because it stars Sharon Stone back in her Basic Instinct heyday, Gene Hackman just after he won an Oscar for Unforgiven, Leonardo DiCaprio only a few years before he became a teenage heartthrob, and Russell Crowe just before L.A. Confidential. And that’s just the starring cast. The supporting cast includes such incredible actors as Keith David, Gary Sinise, Kevin Conway, Pat Hingle, Lance Henrikson, and Tobin “Don’t Call Me Jigsaw” Bell.

All of these actors together in a western… and it’s directed by Sam Fuckmothering Raimi? How the hell have I gone so long without seeing this picture?!

As with most westerns, this one focuses on a lone mysterious stranger with no name, riding into town on a horse to dispense justice. The difference is that this time, our hero is in fact a beautiful woman. Though the credits refer to her as “Ellen,” co-producer Sharon Stone’s character is only called “The Lady” onscreen.

Our stage is set in some wild western town called Redemption, where a notorious criminal (Mr. Herod, played by Gene Hackman) has basically held the town and its people for ransom. He makes his fortune off the backs of Redemption’s residents, and he’s put up over $100,000 as the prize of a quick-draw challenge.

Naturally, a small army of colorful sharpshooters come from miles around, eager to kill each other for that huge pile of money. Herod himself enters the competition, partly to defend his money, but mostly for the sake of his own ego. Lady, having just arrived into town with an apparent grudge against Herod, signs up as well.

Other shooters include Ace Hanlon (Lance Henriksen), a gunman with a penchant for card tricks. Keith David plays another charismatic bounty hunter, name of Sergeant Cantrell. We’ve also got Tobin Bell, Kevin Conway, and Mark Boone Junior appearing as other expendable contestants. Meanwhile, the contest is being moderated by an innkeeper (Pat Hingle) and the local doctor (Roberts Blossom, in his last film role).

Before moving on to the main characters, let’s talk about Sam Raimi. The choice to put Raimi at the helm was certainly an unorthodox move, but it was an inspired one. From a technical standpoint, we’re shown all manner of camera movements, film cuts, montages, and special effects that all carry Raimi’s fingerprints. Anyone familiar with his work would know that it couldn’t have been anyone else behind the lens. Yet Raimi’s style is so ostentatious despite being so low-budget that it works very nicely for this tribute to spaghetti westerns of old.

Of course, I wasn’t just looking for Raimi’s technical skill in this film. I’ve only seen seven of the 18 titles in Raimi’s ouvre so far (the Spider-Man trilogy, the Evil Dead trilogy, and Drag Me to Hell), but I notice that all of them share one thing in common: A sick sense of glee in making their main characters suffer. I don’t know what it is about Sam Raimi, but he seemed to revel in schadenfreude as he dragged Ash Williams, Peter Parker, and Christine Brown through one impossibly unfair misery after another.

As such, I went into this film with the prediction that at least one character would be routinely shat upon through the whole running time. Lo and behold, Raimi did not disappoint.

This film’s poor sap is Cort (Russell Crowe). Formerly a member of Herod’s gang, Cort eventually had his fill with violence and became a man of the cloth. Naturally, Herod doesn’t take kindly to this perceived betrayal, so he forces Cort into the quick-draw contest. Either Cort survives, proving that his supposed vow of non-violence doesn’t change his murderous ways, or Cort dies. Either way, Herod wins. I get all of that, and I understand why Herod would chain the guy up and have his men treat Cort like dirt.

What I don’t understand is why every single citizen in the town treats Cort like a pariah. They mock him, they hiss at him, they even throw crap at him (in a few cases, quite literally). The guy could be on fire and no one would condescend to piss on him. But why? Cort hasn’t acted against anyone in town, so far as I could tell. The guy’s a reverend who’s quite vocally opposed to violence, for God’s sake. Why would anyone be so quick to hate him so vehemently? I can only guess that everyone hates him because Herod hates him, and the whole town is afraid of Herod.

Next up is “The Kid” (Leo DiCaprio), a contestant who may or may not be Herod’s estranged son. The guy’s a preening popinjay, constantly hyping himself up and breaking every female heart in sight just to hide his own insecurities and daddy issues. Oh, and he’s conveniently the owner of a local gun shop.

The Kid and Cort are both characters with one thing in common: They are saved by their actors. Cort has a development arc that is both boring and predictable, while Kid’s brand of swagger got very annoying very quickly. If Crowe and DiCaprio weren’t so darned handsome and charismatic, these characters would have had precisely nothing.

Then there’s the matter of Gene Hackman. It really should go without saying that Hackman does a fine job of playing Herod as an evil, slimy bastard. He’s sadistic, he’s powerful, but most of all, he’s fiendishly clever. Herod has a unique gift for setting things up so that even when his opponents technically win, he still gets his way. He’s a very easy character to hate.

Still, the character of Herod has one very deep flaw: We’re supposed to believe that he’s still one of the fastest hands in the west. I don’t care what Herod’s backstory is, that’s bullshit. For one thing, there’s absolutely no way that Hackman’s old and arthritic fingers could outpace those of a gunman who’s at least half his age. For another thing, I refuse to believe that in all the infinite parallel universes in existence, there is an alternate reality where Gene Hackman could hold his own against Lance Henriksen or Keith David in a fight of any kind. Sorry, but I’m just not buying it.

Last but not least, there’s The Lady. This character was very much a mixed bag for me. On the one hand, the character was sharply written. This character was a never-ending font of witty zingers and withering insults. Additionally, the juxtaposition of a Lady living in a man’s world was quite nicely done. This is a character who called for beauty and strength in equal measure, and few actresses could deliver that combination like Sharon Stone in her prime.

On the other hand, Stone works best within a very narrow range. When she’s a badass enigma breaking mens’ balls, she’s great to watch. When the facade starts to fall and Lady shows some vulnerability, however, Stone’s performance starts to fall apart. Moreover, the film could never quite seem to make up its mind with regards to how feminine or masculine the character was supposed to be. In some scenes, you could swear she was a man unless you looked really close. In other scenes, she’s wearing skintight pants or shirts that are almost completely unbuttoned.

Personally, I fail to understand why the character would dress in any manner that’s remotely provocative, especially after she’s made it clear that male attention of any kind is unwelcome. Moreover, it’s my opinion that we didn’t need the costume designer to remind us that Lady is a beautiful woman. They could have dressed her in a burlap sack and the sight of Sharon Stone in her prime would have been enough to get the point across.

Then there’s the matter of Lady’s character development, which was frustratingly uneven. I submit two scenes as evidence.

1. The very first time we meet Lady, she’s tracked Tobin Bell’s character to the middle of some desert. They fight, she knocks him out, she chains him to the wheel of a busted wagon, and leaves him to die. Who was Tobin Bell’s character? Why did Lady track him to the middle of nowhere? Why did she leave him to die? What does she get out of this?

2. When we first meet Cort, Herod is in the process of killing him. But Lady takes pity on Cort and saves his life. Why would Lady save the life of this guy she’s never met before? Lady’s made it clear that she doesn’t give a damn about anyone else in this town, so what makes him special? Is this some dreadfully mishandled attempt at a romance arc or what?

One of these scenes — so far as I can tell — got no explanation whatsoever. The other one goes unexplained until the last ten minutes. In both cases, that’s just sloppy storytelling.

Finally, there’s the matter of this film’s stance on violence. First of all, Cort has foresworn all violence and professes that killing is wrong. Lady counterargues, stating that some people deserve to be killed. Later on, Lady gets into a fight with some perverted asshole who might as well have a bullseye painted on his forehead. Yet Lady can’t bring herself to kill him.

But when the time comes, Cort and Lady both commit acts of slaughter with absolutely no consequences. So what was the point here? Were the filmmakers trying to be subversive, putting a statement against violence into a movie whose genre thrives on cathartic violence? If there’s any such statement to be made here, it’s far too wishy-washy and hypocritical to be coherent.

(Side note: Compare this to Django Unchained. There’s another film that paid loving tribute to old spaghetti western films, and did it with an unorthodox hero. More importantly, that movie was far and away more successful at using scenes of violence to make a deeper intellectual point. Oh, and they both co-starred Leonardo DiCaprio, isn’t that a happy coincidence?

(Not to compare these two films all that deeply, especially since they came out almost two decades apart, I’m just saying that one of these movies gave me a much greater appreciation of the other.)

I think The Quick and the Dead could best be described as “brainless.” The dialogue is wonderful, the action is entertaining, the visuals are of Raimi’s usual caliber, and the actors are all fun to watch. Unfortunately, I can’t bring myself to ignore the sloppy storytelling, the plot holes, or the inconsistent character development.

A film with this pedigree should have been nothing short of incredible. Instead, it’s only mindless fun. I suppose that’s good enough.

One Comment

  1. Ping from Anonymous:

    Really well written piece, totally agree with you

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