The Quick and The Dead (1995)
Written by Simon Moore
Directed by Sam Raimi
Without planning it, I’ve managed to watch a Sam Raimi film in all three of my Flashback series this year. For 1990 I re-watched Darkman, and for 1985 I saw the disappointing Raimi-Coen Brothers collaboration Crimewave. The Quick and The Dead represents a more reigned in presentation from Sam Raimi, with signature flourishes but presented in a less manic style than his two previous works, Darkman and Army of Darkness. There’s a lot to like about this Western in the way it embraces and challenges the genre, it’s definitely a mixed bag, but something I think is overall a delightful and well-made picture.
The Lady (Sharon Stone) arrives in the Old West town of Redemption with revenge on her mind. The place is ruled over by wealthy outlaw John Herod (Gene Hackman), who hosts a quick-draw competition that will pit a host of gunslingers against each other. Herod seems obsessed with forcing his former protege Cort (Russell Crowe) into renouncing his pacifist priesthood vows and returning to the fold as a bloodthirsty killer. Herod is not so enthusiastic about The Kid (Leonardo DiCaprio), a young man who claims to be his son and wants to prove his worth in the shoot outs. All the while, The Lady simmers in the background and keeps hesitating to strike out at Herod, knowing that when she draws blood, it will change her forever.
I have to admit I’ve never seen a Western with a quick-draw tournament at the center of the plot. The revenge arc from The Lady is pretty standard for the genre, but this competition is a fabulous and fun thing to center the story around. It allows the presentation of a diverse, almost comic book-like cavalcade of shooters. You have Ace Hanlon (Lance Henriksen), a Bill Hicock modeled fraud whose reputation inflates his skill. There’s Spotted Horse, a Native American whose body has been riddled with the white man’s bullets yet still stands. Scars is an escaped convict still in his prison stripes with brutal slashes across his face. Sgt. Cantrell (Keith David) is a war hero turned gun for hire brought to town by the Mexican citizens who want Herod’s reign ended. There’s a beautiful cheesiness that Sam Raimi handles so well.
Rounding this out, you have fantastic character actors like Pat Hingle as the tavern owner, Roberts Blossom as the doctor, and even the great Western vet Woody Strode is in his final performance. You can tell Raimi loves Westerns, and I don’t think he’s ever made a picture that hasn’t come from his heart. There are nods to classic entries into the genre like High Noon and John Ford & Sergio Leone’s work. The issue that holds The Quick and The Dead, back from being a fantastic movie, is the lack of focus on a tone. There are moments of absurd comedy but then grim and dark sequences. I couldn’t quite get a handle on what kind of a movie Raimi was making. He has all the pieces assembled but doesn’t know how to fit them together right to create the product he has in his head. I think the idea of a Western using the filmmaking techniques seen in the Evil Dead and Darkman is a wonderful idea, but something went wrong in the mix here.
I think having a female protagonist was a great idea because it adds another layer of menace to the story. The audience anticipates it, and Raimi handles it well. Women in this time were always under the threat of sexual violence. The Lady doesn’t have too close of a call with it, rebuffing the grotesque Scars right in the first act and using her sexuality to get close to Herod, but not too overtly. Her main encounter with this element of Old West life is through Katie, the tavernkeeper’s daughter, who is being coerced into sex work by Dred, one of the town’s many unsavory characters. The film is not saying sex work is wrong, but that people like Dred manufacture the consent of underage people to use them, not to empower them. This whole side plot never takes up much of the screentime, but I’m glad The Lady’s identity as a woman played a role in the story; it wasn’t merely casting a female actor in a male role.
The Quick and The Dead is definitely a funny, reasonably breezy watch. If you love Raimi’s style, then I suspect you’ll like this one too. It’s a surprisingly overlooked entry in his filmography. It is most definitely worth a revisit and offers the same sort of colorful and, at times, absurdly comic tone of the director’s other works.