Letterboxd Reviews: The Quick and the Dead (1995)

File this one under "No one else was thinking about it."

I imagine the Sam Raimi, Gore Verbinski, and Tim Burton of the mid-1990s era would have had a lot of fun making a kind of texture-and-genre collaboration, something like 2007's Grindhouse or even a "Tales From..." branded horror anthology only with a more of a UHF channel's mid-morning movie slot as inspiration. While their respective fates as titanic production czars--with buckets of CGI and the hallowed intellectual properties of the Disney, Warner, and Sony at their fingertips--have done nothing helpful for them creatively, it's still an occasional thrill to see some Buster Keaton gags or a raging loyalty to boisterous camera setups appear in mainstream movies. And as a result, we sometimes can rewatch something like The Quick and the Dead, a movie one of these guys cut their studio teeth on, and we can see the full panorama of their careers.

This movie accomplishes one thing that the podrace sequence of The Phantom Menace and the first 40 minutes of Suicide Squad could only dream of: a big splashy comic book origin for each contestant in the deadly quick draw contest. It provides a lot of diverse western novelty, while also demonstrating each one's motivations and where they land on a moral spectrum. It's economical and almost noir-ish storytelling that compliments the lingering gusto of the visuals. At times almost like professional wrestling or an intimate stage play, only touched up by Joss Whedon, which this script certainly was. That's one of the mid-'90s cornerstones of popular American cinema which worked splendidly about fifty percent of the time: put all the money on the screen at once, as often as possible, and the script can spend less time and energy trying to make the story big, and more energy trying to make it easy to digest. While the western film genre is a rough one to apply this method to, it's actually a surefire success for western television, comic books, and novels. The plots are big on archetype, small on complicated mechanics. The sizzle resides in bombastic characters and desperate situations. What's a more desperate and urgent danger in the old west than a quick-draw duel? Here's ten of them. Honestly, it would make a good prestige streaming series now, starring perhaps Lena Headey.

Leonardo DiCaprio is suitably cute in it, though the role might have benefitted from someone more skilled at the time for showing vulnerability, perhaps Matt Damon or DiCaprio's buddy and future Spider-Man for Raimi himself, Toby Maguire. You can really see here how DiCaprio became a movie star. No sign whatsoever that he was going to become an actual actor. Him or Russell Crowe, who gets very little material to work with. But that's not what this movie is. It's an old-fashioned star vehicle, and the roles are made for this cast's broad audience appeal. Hackman's presence does all the work for his heel turn, banking off his sustained menace as the similarly odious villain in Unforgiven. He's firmly entrenched in his career's second phase as the elder statesman of small, memorable performances in largely forgettable projects. 

Sharon Stone is in full Stallone mode, even if you admire the Eastwood she is clearly shooting for. It's a valiant enough effort for someone riding that high after coming out the unlikely MVP of Martin Scorsese's latest mob opus. It would be more delicate to call The Quick and the Dead a big starring vehicle designed around Sharon Stone's raw star power, but it would probably be more objective to call it a vanity exercise. Stone allegedly handpicked both her love interests (even going so far to pay DiCaprio's salary herself) and even picked Raimi to be the director off her affection for Army of Darkness. Her choices were...eclectic, when put in the same room, but oddly prescient in their ongoing success. Smaller roles for Lance Henriksen, Keith David, Pat Hingle, and more than a handful of other terrific character actors playing at big western cartoon characters give the movie a lot of production value, just like the Italian westerns Sam Raimi is clearly taking visually from.

Raimi shoots this big operatic plot claustrophobically, resting on lots of glossy close-ups of his big movie stars. All big "hero" shots. It feels a bit tawdry once removed from the era where it was the norm to put the expensive performers front and center. It has the same calculation as the formation of a boy band at times. These glamour shots serve as part of the spaghetti western throwback happening, but they lack the big wide establishing shots that provide scope and scale to the heightened dramatics. The best we get are some meaty depth-of-field views through the surprisingly voluminous saloon and down the sepia-tinted main street of town. These along with the frequent loving close-ups provide each lead performance with a note of isolation, as if their scene partner were probably not glaring at them in character fifty feet away. It's more of a Spaghetti-Os western. A mock imitator made for lazy American '90s consumerism. Having said that, there's a novelty to its quick wit and absurd brand of studio movie violence. It's a quick and effective piece of fun, even if it lacks the grandeur necessary to make it a classic of the genre. As well-designed and dressed as the sets at the Arizona movie ranch where this was shot were for the production, they are still sets. Raimi's primary task was to make them look as expansive and expensive as possible, and in that regard he succeeded. The amount of atmosphere he puts into the movie almost props up entirely the broad '90s action movie struggling to break out of the new western movie boom. I say his personal touch is more usefully put to work in Darkman and The Quick and the Dead than it gets used nowadays.

Rating: ✰✰✰ 1/2

This review is a part of Kyle's Letterboxd profile, which includes reviews and movie lists not covered here at the blog, including a ranking of several franchises and excerpts from the book, Cinema Autopsy, which is available on the Amazon Kindle store.

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