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The Quick and the Dead

Posted by martinteller on August 26, 2012

[Note: this review was written on June 22, 2012.  For the story behind it, read this]

The Quick and the Dead A solemn woman (Sharon Stone) arrives in an isolated ramshackle Western town with one thing on her mind: revenge for the brutal killing of her father (Gary Sinise, though his appearance is so brief it’s barely worth mentioning).  The man responsible: John Herod (Herod, get it?… played by Gene Hackman), the undisputed kingpin of the town, whose wealth and power makes him a formidable target.  But the woman has a surefire route to her vengeance, in the form of a kill-or-be-killed quickdraw elimination contest.  She’ll have to work her way through the other competitors first, including a cocky outlaw (Lance Henriksen), a hired assassin (Keith David), Herod’s own son (Leonardo DiCaprio) eager to prove himself, and the Reverend Cort (Russell Crowe), captured and bound by Herod’s henchmen.

My history with the Western genre is all relatively recent.  With two or maybe three exceptions, I avoided the genre up until the past 10 years, under the ignorant delusion that they were all the same… a vision of John Wayne as the macho cowboy, shootin’ them rotten Injuns full of holes in picture after picture.  Only when I finally removed my blinders did I see that the genre has as many different flavors as any other, and I developed an appreciation for the subtle differences (even occasionally managing to enjoy Wayne, at least in Rio Bravo).  One of the more interesting variations is the spaghetti western, particularly in the hands of Sergio Leone.  In the opening scenes of The Quick and the Dead, the vibe is pure Leone: dramatic use of widescreen compositions, a character suddenly bursting into the frame, Sharon Stone wearing a duster, the distinctly Morricone-esque music, and a prelude that is more than a little reminiscent of the ending to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.  Stone rides into town and the coffin-maker sizes her up, straight out of A Fistful of Dollars (and, by proxy, Yojimbo).  Her vengeful motivations are revealed in snippets of flashback, a la Once Upon a Time in the West.

The early bits of Leone-isms got my blood racing a bit, and I figured I might be in for a fun bit of homage.  Eventually, however, Raimi seems to back off and do things more in his own style.  Swooping camera moves, some creative bits of violence and lovingly fetishistic shots of weaponry.  With cinematography by Dante Spinotti (pro tip: if you’re going to pay tribute to the spaghetti western, hire an Italian), the film’s look is quite flashy and consistently appealing to the eye, though perhaps a wee bit heavy on the sepia tones.  The set design feels a little uninspired, your standard dusty Western town with the usual trappings (but… what’s up with Stone’s anachronistic sunglasses?).

When the movie falters is in its essential content.  The quickdraw gunfight is a classic Western trope, to use one or two is not cliché but working with the conventions of the genre.  But they’re typically the climax of the film, when all the chips are down and it’s time for fate to play his final hand.  Here, the film is gunfight after gunfight after gunfight.  Despite some minor efforts to make each one feel a little different, they quickly become repetitive and tiresome.  Not to mention predictable.  You can guess the outcome of each gunfight by the amount of screentime each participant has.  Who’s going to win?  Check which actor is billed higher.  There’s no sense of stakes, and the legwork to build emotional investment hasn’t been done.  Late in the game there are one or two minor surprises, but they’re far from earth-shattering and fairly predictable if you’re paying attention.  For those who crave a strong plot, there isn’t much of one.  For those who crave a compelling thematic underbelly, there isn’t much of that either.  Raimi makes some half-hearted attempts at providing a feminist viewpoint.  Stone announces herself with a definitive declaration that she is not to be counted among the town’s prostitutes, she’s established as an extremely competent gunslinger and she stands up in support of a young girl molested by one of the more despicable denizens.  I appreciate the good intentions, but there’s not much meat on those bones.  The entertainment value is there, at least in sporadic bursts… the substance isn’t.

Let’s run down the cast.  DiCaprio has some nice youthful energy (the film comes soon after his breakthrough performance in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?), but doesn’t really imbue the character with the depth required to care about his fate.  The father-son dynamic with Hackman isn’t nearly as developed or weighty as it deserves.  Crowe, well… I’ve never cared much for him.  He does his usual stoic, simmering thing and I just don’t find him very interesting to watch.  Hackman attacks his role with his customary gusto, and besides a few of the secondary characters, seems to be the only one really having fun with it.  The part is highly reminiscent of his work in Unforgiven, but without as many layers of darkness.  But he’s quite enjoyable to behold, ripping into his lines with a lively sneer.  As for Stone, she’s trying to pull off the Eastwood silent badass routine but doesn’t quite have the stuff to make it work.  And when she has the occasional emotional moment, it’s more laughable than anything else.  I feel compelled to note that in the “Best Actresses of All Time Relay Race” currently making the rounds through various movie blogs, her name has not been uttered once.  She’s a capable actress, but rarely if ever more than that.

Ultimately, the film survives on the strength of its striking visual sensibilities, some instances of clever dialogue, inventive violence and Hackman’s brassy performance.  But Raimi doesn’t have any kind of fresh spin on the Western, and the script stumbles over itself with the repetitive gunfights.  If these characters were meant to be larger than life, they still need some actual life.  Although mildly enjoyable, there are far better modern takes on the genre, including the Coen remake of True Grit, Reichardt’s haunting Meek’s Cutoff (with much more compelling feminist aspects), Sayles’s introspective genre-bender Lone Star and especially the aforementioned Unforgiven.  Rating: Fair (63)


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