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The Quick and the Dead (1995)

by on 2011/06/12

“Looks like you’re having a good time playing with yourself.”

* * * *

Sam Raimi and I got ourselves a reckoning.

I just don’t know what to think of the man. He appears genuinely charming in interviews but, as with Kevin Smith, that’s no guarantee I’ll enjoy his movies.

Here’s the rub: he’s a legitimate geek icon, and I respect his status, but I have to be honest with myself. Did I enjoy Evil Dead? No. Army of Darkness? No. Darkman? I very much wanted to but sadly also no.

Then came The Quick and the Dead, an endeavour about which Raimi himself has voiced doubts, yet easily my favourite of his, and by a considerable margin too. It is to his repertoire as “Don’t You Forget About Me” is to Simple Minds’.

Infused with elements of the Spaghetti Western school, the once-adrenalizing shooter has since been superseded by hyperkinetic efforts like Crank (a common touchstone I must critique some day). Unlike that flick, however, it boasts more substance, and an interesting theme, in this case familial duty between a parent and their child.

In the town of Redemption, self-appointed protector John Herod (Young Frankenstein’s Gene Hackman) is taking 50% from the people as taxes. He’s unpopular enough they want him dead, so he conducts an annual dueling competition. Open to gunslingers, mercenaries, and other similar threats, it gives him the chance to deal with them face-to-face.

A diverse group of candidates gathers in the saloon. Embodied by an awesome, diverse ensemble, they include a pedophile (Kevin Conway), an outlaw (Saw’s Tobin Bell), a soldier-turned-mercenary (They Live’s Keith David), a trick shot artist (Terminator’s Lance Henriksen) and, most notably, a preacher (L.A. Confidential’s Russell Crowe), a kid (Romeo + Juliet’s Leonardo DiCaprio), and a lady (Basic Instinct’s Sharon Stone). Other key roles include a marshal (Apollo 13’s Gary Sinise), the town doctor (Home Alone’s Roberts Blossom), a barkeep (Batman’s Pat Hingle), and his daughter (Olivia Burnette).

The story unloads like the highlight reel of a sporting event, somehow broadcast from the Old Wild West on pay-per-view. Sixteen fighters become eight, four, two, and one, in a successive knockout tournament, ending with winners standing and, in later rounds, surviving.

Colouring the duelists’ progress is perhaps the most chaotic scene-chewing battle royal you might ever see onscreen. While Stone struggles with the lady Ellen’s restraint, and Crowe portrays the preacher Cort as exhausted, to a-one, every other character has a gimmick to showboat to their end.

Stone is ostensibly the tale’s protagonist, though it doesn’t necessarily make her the star. As presented, her character is evasive, an enigma, so traumatized she can’t relate to her peers. The actress does a very good job with her quiet intensity. Without a word, she communicates her suppression of dread, hate, and disbelief at the machismo on display.

In fact, I’d have preferred she hadn’t said as much as she does. If her anachronistic feminist indignation is interesting, then other touches — her swearing, double entendres, and seduction — weaken her slightly.

But I’m nitpicking. The experience is not without wrinkles. The characters are, with few exceptions, one-dimensional. A prostitute audibly says of one contestant, “He’s so hot!” And some visual effects seem better as ideas than in on-screen execution.

Speaking of which, the effects are likely what most will address when evaluating the whole overall. I kept a running list of them, and they’re as diverse as they are numerous: canted angles, deep focus, extreme close-ups, isolated elements, montage, point-of-view shots, reflected light, sepia tone, slow motion, supers on black, unusual shadows, and far too many zooms, including the dolly type popularized by Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

Most effects functioned well, only a few did not, including one unfortunate climactic shot. Critics may dismiss it all as a showcase of gimmicks, tricks, and novelties, but such judgment sells things short. It’s a technical tour de force employing quantity, yes, but rarely over quality.

Too many miss its proficiencies. The cinematography’s solid, with good locations, composition, lighting, and command of Spaghetti Western conventions. It benefits from a great score by Predator’s Alan Silvestri — including harmonicas, brass, and whips — and the sound design factors prominently into the plot.

I doubt anyone would be surprised by now to learn how I love this piece. It’s short, sharp, and distinctive, and never too quirky to work. The Quick and the Dead is, frankly, the single best reason I have any faith in Sam Raimi.

* * * *

Rated 14A (Canada) / R (United States)

105 minutes

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