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The Quick and the Dead Review

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by Chris McEneany Sep 17, 2009

    The Quick and the Dead Review

    Giving the Wild West a flamboyant, yet perversely Gothic spin, Sam Raimi's dizzyingly visual bullet-spinner, The Quick And The Dead comes to UK Blu-ray on Sony's region (and extras) free disc. With two enormously successful franchises under his belt both before and after he unleashed this, in The Evil Dead and Spider-Man, Raimi's hyper-excited style is instantly recognisable in this semi-surreal homage to the Spaghetti Westerns of the sixties and seventies. Lurid, action-packed and laced with an atmosphere both grimly fascinating and completely absurdist, his ode to the gunfights of myth and legend almost bridges the gap between his cult gore-flinging Deadite series and the free-spirited ebullience of his crowd and critic-pleasing web-slinging trilogy. That it combines his helter-skelter aplomb for giddy trick-photography and bravura direction with a cast to die-for seems like grist-to-the-mill when the film is possibly best remembered for introducing Russell Crowe to American audiences and sending him on his trail-blazing way.

    Having won-over his leading lady and the film's powerful co-producer, Sharon Stone, with his menacingly charismatic performance as neo-Nazi thug, Hando, in the courageous Aussie drama Romper Stomper (1992), Russell Crowe pulled out of the bag a dazzling, scene-stealing performance for Raimi's gloriously vibrant comic-book Western revenge-spree from 1995 that well and truly set him in on the road to stardom. Stone demanded that he appear in what would be his Hollywood debut and, magnifying the studio clout that she wielded at that time, even opened the door for Raimi to assume the directorial chores. Her choices and her persistence certainly paid off and both co-star and director would make their big mainstream breaks on this basis.

    A gaggle of dangerous gunslingers arrive in a shabby, downtrodden desert town under the vicious rule of a nefarious sheriff, to enter into a gladiatorial contest to find out who is the fastest, sharpest shooter of them all. Once their names are down, they cannot leave ... and there can be only one winner. Amongst this mob of death-dealers are two enigmatic strangers - a bruised and battered preacher with a cruel past and a cold-hearted woman with a vendetta in mind. The Preacher, called Cort (Russell Crowe), has reonounced violence but is now a prisoner forced to fight, and who must resort to his former dark ways if he is to survive the contest. Ellen, or The Lady (played by Sharon Stone), has a mean mission in mind and a desperate reason for entering the contest, for the corrupt Sheriff, called Herod (and played by Gene Hackman), murdered her father, the town's previous marshall. But Herod is also reputed to be the best gunslinger around, and if she wants a chance to get even with him, then she will have to fight her way through the competition first. When the clock tower strikes the hour of seven each evening, the shooting begins and the bodies start to fall. Unlikely alliances are formed and treacherous deeds unfold. Sam Raimi deviates strongly from the old John Ford trail and ventures bravely into the demented world of the Spaghetti psycho-dramas, notching up a steady bodycount, but, more acutely, knuckling away at the once broad Western stereotypes until only haunted anti-heroes are left standing. Yet, even for such a grim premise, there is a whole lot of fun to be had.

    Cort's Preacher is not at all a great character in the traditional sense, but sieved through Crowe's expert hands he becomes towering yet vulnerable, redoubtable yet humorously hangdog. It is precisely the kind of role that would mark him out as something extraordinary. His usual intensity may have been swapped for a likeably dishevelled demeanour, but that half-smile and the wonderfully dogged resilience he exhibits to all the depredations and abuse that are dished out to him almost continuously produce an aura that is devoutly electric. This was the first film that I actually saw him in, and it made a tremendous impression - not just on me, of course, for without this cunning performance, it is doubtful he would have risen to mega-stardom in the likes of LA Confidential, The Insider and, of course, Gladiator, quite so quickly, or so emphatically - but it had me seeking out Romper Stomper almost immediately to see where such a dangerously unpredictable presence hailed from. Perhaps it is the very thing that plagues his personality in real-life so badly that makes him so eminently watchable in films - that irrepressible, damn-you-all confidence. Some would say arrogance and, in truth, it is a constantly scale-shifting combination of the two that ensures every performance that he gives is distinct and intractable. It seems his speciality is playing someone with a chip on his shoulder, but his gift is in making such characters rascally but empathetic, and not without a certain degree of in-built wit. You can't help but sympathise when the Preacher is set upon by a gang of kids wielding planks of wood, or when that one teasing glass of water falls out of his reach of his chained arms and drains uselessly away. Likewise, you just have to rejoice when he kicks that door back into his tormentor's face and breaks his nose. Or when he is able, at last, to lie on his back and drink from the torrential rain that he has been left out in. Goaded by leering townspeople and mocked for "seeing the light", it has to take a terrific backstory to make sense of it all and, thankfully, we get that. Although preposterous, it also makes beautfully poetic sense. Having his wrists damaged before a pivotal duel smacks of Franco Nero getting his hands mashed in the hugely influential, and equally mysterious Django, and it is lyrically devastating how his brutal instincts, thought to be long-dormant, belie his desires for peace and harmony with a perversely cathartic benediction of lead when that clock strikes the fateful time.

    As would become the norm, Crowe is mesmerising.

    Sharon Stone's vengeful Ellen should be the backbone of the story, and the inner-conflict that she faces is rightly full of moral complexity and a dangerous allure. But the problem lies in the fact that, whether male or female, the role of haunted avenger is just so commonplace and clichéd that nothing Stone does with it can make the character truly shine. In a rather surprising twist, however, she doesn't just play the part with the unflappable cool and colossal self-reliance that many others would have. She is not giving it the Sigourney Weaver or Gina Davis approach. There are times, of course, when her abilities and her strong-willed sense of justice fill in all the blanks - taking out bigots and sexist predators, for instance, with all the might of justifiable rage on her side - but Stone also gives way to doubt and fear, and even crumbles with sadness at the enormity of her crusade. Perhaps this is the reply to Clint Eastwood's icons often taking a severe beating that puts them out of action for awhile and forces them to dig even deeper into their souls to make it through to the final fight. Let's face it, a hero who is simply unstoppable denies us any sense of jeopardy and, in this respect, Stone delivers. A great scene between Ellen and Herod, after the swine has invited her to dinner in his lair, pivots upon her slowly dawning realisation that revenge is never so simple as just pulling a trigger. And, as manly, brick-hard and super-skilled as she is, the plot then hammers home her unquestionable feminine vulnerability. Although apparently quite contrived, the scene is cleverly written and resonant. Plus, you just cannot fault her supreme sexiness in Stetson, boots, designer waistcoat and ultra-hip, 60's-flavoured octagonal shades, can you?

    But, although she may be the star of the film, Sharon Stone is certainly upstaged by both Crowe and Hackman. Of the two male leads, Crowe is the obvious stand-out, whilst Hackman makes a somewhat depressingly effective villain. His now-trademarked acidic sarcasm and all-out callousness conspire to make him little more than a caricature which, for an actor of his calibre is slightly deflating. The role of Herod, as his namesake implies, is one composed purely of boo-hissery from start to finish, but he is somewhat short-changed in the motivational stakes. We hear of past exploits and even get to see the pivotal deed that shapes the very trajectory of the story but, unlike Cort, we have no real sense of the actual character within Herod, or what precisely makes him tick. Yes, there are attempts to provide him with some degree of history, even some misplaced pride and an almost uncomfortable sentimentality which, cleverly, Hackman makes appear totally alien and almost poisonous to the character. But we have seen this act from him before, albeit to lesser extremes of evil. Even his intelligent portrayal of submarine Captain Frank Ramsey in Tony Scott's Crimson Tide, the same year, revealed that darkly driven verbal sniper that Hackman has produced time and time again. Here, strutting about a town that he, himself, has pilfered from its own destiny and now controls with almost tyrannical zeal, he never uses one line when a dozen will do (just like a certain reviewer who shall remain nameless, eh?). This eloquence hides dialogue that is barbed and despicable, loaded with as deadly a round as his own six-gun. The sheer pleasure he takes in doling-out a dressing-down is written so indelibly across that leering bully-boy's face and within those little gleaming piggie-eyes that it is difficult not to believe that Hackman possibly added venom to each and every syllable. But as dirty and as harassing as he is to his captive Cort, he reserves perhaps the most damaging of his spiel for Leonardo DiCaprio's effervescent and enthusiastic teen gunfighter, Fee ... or The Kid.

    And, for his part, DiCaprio, still some way off breaking hearts in Titanic, acquits himself respectfully. With a secret burning him up inside and a fierce desire to prove himself the fastest draw in the territory, he uses his youth to its best advantage. Dropping each successive opponent with alarming ease and revealing an impressive knowledge of frontier firepower, he steps beyond the confines of what could have been little more than an annoying teen-interest element. There is even a hint of the maturity that would come in later performances with a genuinely moving scene towards the end that is wonderfully modulated and expertly greeted with indifference by Hackman's scornful patriarch. If Stone's Lady is the dark heart of the tale, and Crowe's Preacher its spiritually redemptive core, then DiCaprio's Kid is the broken dream of a once idealistic West. Heady conceits for what is, ostensibly, a pulp actioner.

    Genre-fans can certainly rejoice in the cavalcade of familiar faces populating the town. Perhaps neatest of all is the great Woody Strode, who cameos briefly as the coffin-maker, Charlie Moonlight, in what would prove to be his last ever role. Once a honed and toned mountain of chiselled muscle - as seen in Spartacus, as the honourable gladiator, Drabba, and a vast number of Westerns and genre exploitationers such as The Professionals, Once Upon A Time In The West, Keoma and Kampuchea Express - it is somewhat sobering to see him as a whittled-down old man. But, hey, look at that twinkle in his eye when he spies fresh meat coming into town. Lance Henrikson's dandified sharpshooter, Ace Hanlon, makes boastful claims about his exploits whilst preening his elegant mane of hair, but you just know that his playing-card-bedecked leathers will be soon be ventilated by some real sharp shooting and that, ultimately, his trigger finger will not be on the winning hand. The Thing's imposing Keith David steps up to the plate as the Cavalryman-turned-hired assassin, Sgt. Clay Cantrell, conducting his mission with a noble but doomed air. And Arnie's old bodybuilding chum and veteran movie henchman in everything from Conan The Barbarian and Predator to Hard Target and even Gladiator (as the intimidating Tigris of Gaul), Sven-Ole Thorsen crops up as unlikely Swedish champion, Gutzon. Mark Boone Junior makes his semi-psychotic ex-con, Scars, another sweaty and unpleasant offering in a long line of such characters including his slimy Fed in Se7en and the corrupt Det. Flass in Batman Begins. But rivalling Strode for appearances over a career spanning five and a half decades is the inimitable Pat Hingle, as Horace, the competition's games master who places the odds and counts the cost with a gruff air of devoted fatality. However, don't go looking for the usual Bruce Campbell cameo as his brief scene has still not been reinstated.

    But look out for Jonothon Gill as the renegade Indian, Spotted Horse. His wonderful speech about his own invulnerability plays directly into a scene that could almost be tipping the hat to the undead ghouls of The Evil Dead. Raimi manages to imbue the set-piece with both fun and fear, as Crowe's Preacher frantically has to scrabble and beg for another bullet and Spotted Horse's supernatural boast seems to be coming true as his bullet-scarred body simply refuses to lay down and die.

    Writer Simon Moore is perhaps more well-known for his screenplays for fantastical TV mini-series such as Dinotopia and The 10th Kingdom than he is for big screen endeavours, but his penchant for wise-ass dialogue shines through the grit and dust of The Quick And The Dead. I'm tempted to think that the Raimis, Sam, Ted and Ivan, were more influential in the direction that the script finally took, their own love of Cinema and the fabled Wild West taking the reins and heading towards a destination that they'd had in mind all along. True or not, The Quick And The Dead has all of their hallmarks.

    The film's technical pedigree is also second to none. With sublime photography from Dante Spinotti, who also blended light and shade to create a lustrous texture for Michael Mann's excellent The Last Of The Mohicans and Public Enemies, and crackerjack editing from frequent Ridley Scott collaborator Pietro Scalia, The Quick And The Dead always looks amazing. Vistas scorch the screen, the film often resembling one of Hell's patios and Raimi's demented trick-shots and visual acrobatics are given a splendid jolt of adrenaline. Ennio Morricone is recalled with a coolly nostalgic score from the always busy and ever-reliable Alan Silvestri, the film's musical themes darkly rousing and suitably brooding. And the set-design and art direction from Hilton Rosemarin and Steve Saklad give the film a gloriously anachronistic flavour. Herod's house, for example, is a massively over-the-top Addams Family-style mansion that looks like it has just been lifted from a theme park. Replete with a sagging roof, off-kilter angles, turrets and a distinct haunted house appeal, it sits at the head of what is, otherwise, a typically constructed Hollywood Western town. Capping-off this fabulously weird chateau is the inspired, yet completely abstract mock heroic/mythological statuary that sits outside, complementing the time-out-of-time, limbo-locked alternate world vibe of the film's environment.

    Although dragged from the same saddle-bags as the iconic Spaghetti strand of Western, Raimi combines his hyper-stylish take with the visuals, lyricism and murderous symmetry of Leone and the metaphysical township-from-Hell concept that set the likes of Enzo Castellani, Giulio Questi and Sergio Carbucci apart from the regular herd of European oaters. Calling the big bad guy Herod sparks off some obvious religious overtones, compounded by the dastardly Sheriff's contempt for his own son, and making Redemption a place from which there seems no tangible escape, except for once you've been stuffed into a box, that is, marks it out as some form of symbolic Purgatory. Clint Eastwood's High Plains Drifter returned from the grave to avenge his own murder, painted his old town red and called it Hell - and The Quick And The Dead certainly leans towards this frontier limbo, itself. But Clint's town was still real and its connections to the outside world were undeniable, making the revenge-fuelled ex-Sheriff's strange crusade altogether more psychological than theological. Herod and his dirty henchmen, his subjugated people and the colourful, comic-book rogues and oddities that sign up for this bizarre game all seem to reside in some alternate reality, literally taking the concept of the frontier to its surreal extremes. Thematically, the story offers a time-honoured quest for retribution, punctuated with the Leone trademark of haunting flashbacks of ritualistic execution, as seen in Once Upon A Time In The West and even For A Few Dollars More. Having Cort as some violence-forsaking Preacher also sparks memories of Clint's Biblical score-settler in Pale Rider but, overall, the tone is more akin to the altogether weirder examples of the Euro-sagebrush. The only things that happen for a reason are the acts of retribution. Elsewhere, it is hard to imagine that the town and its people actually serve any purpose at all ...merely ghosts in a pseudo medieval enclave that may, in fact, only be a feverish mirage.

    Even DiCaprio's Kid, who may have a bond to Herod, seems to embody a larger-than-life uber-confidence that is almost mythical in its zest.

    Of course, Raimi's film is not supposed to be analysed in such metaphor and subtext-searching a manner. He wants to play with the conventions of the genre, exploit their visual excesses and languish in a fan-boy's nirvana of Western motifs, characters and situations. That he manages to distil the essence of Leone and Corbucci yet retain his own stamp of authority is true testament to a directorial panache that is immediately recognisable and undeniably cool.

    Never memorable or even individual enough to stand beside the classics of the Western, The Quick And The Dead is still an excellent modern take on the accepted legends and archetypes of the format. Built around the gunfight, as opposed to simply using it as a convenient climactic conflict-resolver, it becomes the frontier equivalent of, say, A Knight's Tale - nothing more than a joyous exploration of the mythical idea rather than the historical truth. Arguably, the overwhelming majority of Westerns do exactly the same thing, but Raimi is possibly the first to make a quasi-gladiatorial sport out of the concept. In this way, he also mimics the gambling ethic so often seen in the genre - literally positing a couple of inordinately confident and doubtlessly highly skilled trickster-opportunists going up against one another to prove their abilities at what is little more than a game of chance.

    Although Hackman had done this sort of thing before in Unforgiven, Crowe would go on to ride the range again in the fun remake of 3.10 To Yuma (BD reviewed separately), proving that his rugged charm perfectly suits the period milieu. Unless you count Hercules and Xena as Westerns that are sort of relocated in time (and space) - which is not all that hard to do - Raimi has not returned to the genre since, which is a shame. I doubt that he could effectively curtail his lurid visual fetishes to make a thoroughly honourable horse opera, but his directorial flair and sheer sense of fun are certainly addictive enough credentials to make any further gun-toting slices of frontier amorality a worthwhile prospect.

    Dark and demented, The Quick And The Dead is tremendous fun all round.