The western genre is about as old as the movies themselves. And the genre has taken many different forms over the years. There are the classical westerns of John Ford and Howard Hawks; the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci; and then there’s the modern western which takes on many different forms from Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger, Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. With a few notable exceptions, today the western is deemed to be cursed at the box office. Before it was deemed a cursed genre, the western experienced one last hurrah in the early ‘90s. Bolstered by the Oscar wins of Unforgiven and Dances with Wolves, the early to mid ‘90s saw a boom in western fare. Most of these films flopped or just quickly left the public consciousness. One film that flopped was Sam Raimi’s The Quick and the Dead. A film without the most compelling writing, The Quick and the Dead endures because Raimi turned this homage to Leone into a visual feast that overcomes any of the script’s shortcomings.
The rundown town of Redemption is a haven for outlaws and thugs. The town is ruled by John Herod (Gene Hackman), a ruthless man willing to kill anyone at a moment’s notice to maintain his iron grasp on the town’s citizens. One day a mysterious stranger rides into town looking for a drink and a room to stay. Known only as The Lady (Sharon Stone), she must quickly prove her abilities to survive in the rough and tumble town. She has arrived just when the first of the gun fighters are coming into town for the annual gun fighting competition staged by Herod. The eccentrics come from all over. There’s Ace Hanlon (Lance Henricksen), a man who brags endlessly about the men he’s murdered; Sergeant Cantrell (Keith David), a Union soldier turned gun for hire; The Kid (Leonardo DiCaprio), a young gunfighter with only his mouth bigger than his ego; Scars (Mark Boone Junior), a hideous and brutal outlaw, and other men whose braggadocio is only matched by their brutality. While the contest if filled with voluntary gunfighters, Herod has added one reluctant contestant, Cort (Russell Crowe). Once one of Herod’s henchmen, Cort has found religion and turned his back on violence, or so he thought. But there’s more at stake for the winner than stacks of cash, the winner will also receive the satisfaction of obtaining bloody vengeance.
The story itself is just a boilerplate revenge tale. The Lady seeks vengeance on Herod for killing her father when she was a child. The Kid wants vengeance on Herod for not acknowledging him as his son. Herod wants vengeance on Cort for turning his back on him. But while the motivations for revenge aren’t deeply imaginative, the film works well because it’s story that is concerned with placing larger than life, self-mythologizing figures of the west in series of high noon showdowns. And Raimi establishes and draws out the tension with exaggerated angles, quick zooms, extreme close ups, and perfectly timed edits. Raimi doesn’t try to hide the influence of Leone, but adds enough of his own signature moves – the tilting camera looks straight out of Evil Dead 2 – that it feels like a bold new direction for westerns even if Raimi is just repurposing his bag of tricks for a different genre.
The Quick and the Dead also employs a number of standard western tropes. The saloon is the town’s meeting spot, where brawls and feuds are settled much to the dismay of the peaceful barkeep. As gunfighters are ready to duel on the town’s lone dirt road, Mexican women, rosaries in hand, make a sign of the cross before gunfire is exchanged. All set to the sound of an acoustic guitar strumming minor chords as a mournful trumpet blares.
The cast of the film is quite the impressive ensemble, featuring a who’s who of character actors, up and coming stars, and one established legend. While Sharon Stone made the film at the height of her stardom, it’s safe to say that she may provide the film with its weakest performance. To be fair, that’s not entirely on her. The script by Simon Moore, with uncredited work done by John Sayles and Joss Whedon, keeps her guarded, almost one dimensional. And though the intent was to create a female version of the Man with No Name, Stone lacks the edge to make the character fully convincing. In his first role in an American film, Russell Crowe pretty much shows the extent of his range. He plays Cort in the same manner he plays every other role. It’s fun seeing a young DiCaprio try and match his teen idol looks with the swagger of a gunslinger. If there’s one performance that elevates The Quick and the Dead, it is Gene Hackman’s menacing performance of John Herod. Though he’d continue to work for nearly a decade following the film, Hackman’s performance as Herod is one of a handful of roles that he shined in before calling it quits in 2004 following the regrettable and forgettable Welcome to Mooseport. The role of Herod is very close to his role in Crimson Tide. Each man is trying to maintain their grip on an untenable situation, letting their anger supplant their better judgment.
I wouldn’t say that The Quick and the Dead is a quintessential western or Raimi film, but it doesn’t deserve to be written off either. It’s a shining example of how great filmmaking can elevate a marginal script. The film is a succession of showdowns and that’s why it works. There are no pretensions or delusions of grandeur, just a lean, efficient shoot ‘em up. The Quick and the Dead presents how Raimi was able to get the job directing Spider-Man despite lacking massive box office hits on his résumé – he’s a damn fine filmmaker. As he did with the Evil Dead movies, Raimi has a unique talent for taking the familiar and making it feel fresh. Sure, it’s not a great movie, but it’s a fun one.