The Quick and the Dead (1995)
If like me you occasionally enjoy a good dose of western hokum you’ll find that they don’t come much better than Sam Rami’s The Quick and the Dead. Now this should not be confused with the 1987 TV western of the same name starring Sam Elliot or the 1963 war picture boasting the same title as well. No, this one was made in 1995. It stars Sharon Stone (who also co-produced), Russell Crowe, in his first American film, a young Leonardo Di Caprio and the always-reliable Gene Hackman. In supporting parts are a host of top character actors from both TV and the big screen. …I call this film hokum but I mean it in the best sense of the word because its premise is so thoroughly absurd. But it is presented with such panache and style by all concerned that it carries you along on its giddy ride with just enough rest stops to catch your breath before taking you away again.
The story is about a town where a man named Herod (Gene Hackman) stages an annual series of gunfights for the prize of one hundred thousand dollars. All gun duels are “to the death” he tells everyone and the one left alive is the winner and he moves up to the next level. “Anyone who cheats or refuses to kill his opponent will be shot by my men.” And to emphasize the point Herod points to several men with rifles placed on various rooftops overlooking the street…A bunch of colorfully raffish characters come in from all over to enter the contest, win the money and satisfy their bloodlust. But of course the fastest and best shooter is Herod himself and the whole idea behind the contest is really for him to display his prowess in a variety of ways. And he does this with a smile on his lips and an evil twinkle in his eyes….The characters that show up are a rowdy bunch indeed.
There is an African American shootist (Keith David), a fast draw braggart (Lance Henrikson), a Native American called Spotted Horse (Jonathan Gill), a loudmouth bully (Kevin Conway) and The Kid (Leonardo Di Caprio). On the sidelines, locked in chains is Court (Russell Crowe), a former outlaw now turned man of God who now repudiates violence. He used to ride with Herod in the bad old days and Herod means to lure him back into his violent ways just to prove that no man can or is capable of changing his character so radically. The center of town and the place where much of the action takes place is the saloon owned by Herod. And the street in front of this same saloon is where the gun duels occur. They are MC’d by the bartender (Pat Hingle) who recites the rules and when all is ready tells them “Gentlemen, the street is yours. You will commence firing when the clock strikes and the man standing is the winner.”
One of the surprise entrants to the contest is The Kid, a boasting Old West version of the young Mohammed Ali. “I am the greatest! There’s no one in the world faster than me and I am here to prove it!” He especially wants to go up against Herod for reasons that are revealed toward the end. Another surprise contestant is Ellen (Sharon Stone) who signs up but is turned down because she is a woman. “No woman is allowed to compete.” She is told. But Herod relaxes that rule after Ellen insists and displays some of her skills. After that the film is really a series of gunfights shot in every style Raimi and his DP (Dante Spinotti) could think of and they are extremely inventive. So much so that if I didn’t know better I would’ve thought that the film was an imaginative adaptation of a graphic novel. But it isn’t. It’s from an original screenplay by Simon Moore who was smart enough not to just rely on the gunplay to carry the day. He has several interesting back-stories to motivate the principal characters and plenty of smart aleck dialogue to keep things speeding along to its high action climax.
Hackman anchors the film with his well-defined sharp-witted villainy. Di Caprio obviously had fun playing The Kid as some kind of rock star gunfighter. Russell Crowe is subdued and amusingly dethatched, as the gunfighter turned minister and Sharon Stone is simply a knockout as the woman with more on her mind than just winning a gunfight. Gary Sinise has a small but important role as a Marshall. There’s also a blind boy (Jerry Swindall) and a doctor (Roberts Blossoms) who figure importantly in the plot. But as I said before it’s the style that makes the film so much fun. So the credit should go to its director Sam Raimi and his creative crew.
Western genre films are so out of favor that when this film was released the mainstream critics virtually ignored it dismissing it as “Silly trail dust” and moved on to better things. But this film is much more than that. It is a beautiful merging of content and style. And it is done with a kind of boldness and sure handed confidence that you hardly see anymore. I’ve watched it six or seven times now and it never fails to please…So to hell with the critics, this one is pretty damned good movie. Give it a look, see if you don’t agree.