Sharon stone keeps her panties on, so there are surprises in this whacked-out western, no matter how familiar it looks. Despite director Sam Raimi’s hyperstylized efforts to whip up action and laughs, The Quick and the Dead is deeply shallow and damned silly. Raimi, the Detroit auteur behind Darkman and three Evil Dead epics, offers a trippy treatise on gunfight films. He knows his oats. Among the classic westerns richly evoked and royally tweaked are John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon, Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo, Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. What Raimi can’t find is a center. He hankers for us to giggle at the brutal archetypes he’s parodying and to warm to them, too. It won’t wash, pardner.
There is, however, the formidable sight of Stone as a saddle tramp. She rides into the Arizona town of Redemption, circa 1878, looking to indulge a basic instinct. No, not that one. She wants vengeance, which leads into the sob-sister stuff. Via flashbacks we learn that Herod (Gene Hackman), the bad-apple mayor, is responsible for the death of her marshal father (Gary Sinise). Everybody in town has a cliché name on the order of Ace or Doc or Ratsy. For this feminist avenger, all writer Simon Moore can come up with is Ellen. No wonder Stone has to work so laboriously at acting hard-bitten.
As soon as Ellen dismounts, she’s fighting off the sweaty advances of an ex-con named Scars (Mark Boone Junior). “I need a woman,” says Scars, breathing hot lust in her face. “You need a bath,” says Ellen in a put-down that sadly represents the height of the film’s verbal wit. After checking in at the local watering hole, Ellen sizes up the town. The citizens are brought to heel by Herod, who demands half of every dollar they make. He keeps them in line by organizing an annual quick-draw contest that crack-shot Ellen signs up to enter. The downside is that Herod traditionally wins every round, and the last round is always fatal. Hackman is mostly reprising his Oscar-winning villain role in Unforgiven minus the extras of substance and nuance, but he remains a keen presence even in these reduced circumstances.
The other strong presence is Leonardo DiCaprio (an Oscar nominee at 19 for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape), who plays Herod’s son, the Kid. The cocky Kid has big eyes for Ellen and a big ambition to take on Daddy Dearest in the contest, even if it means dying to do it. Ellen’s tough facade begins to crumble when she sees the cruelty of Herod. He uses psychological torture on the Kid and the more literal variety on Cort (Russell Crowe), a friend of Herod’s who draws his ire by finding religion. Herod’s idea of kicks is standing a man on a chair, tying a noose around his neck and shooting the chair out from under him splinter by splinter.
Stone makes her fatal mistake by trying to act. She lets her eyes grow moist and her lips quiver to indicate Ellen’s vulnerability. The rest of the cast members wisely intuit that this movie is no place for acting. Dante Spinotti’s frenetic camera work, Pietro Scalia’s manic editing and Alan Silvestri’s pounding score do all the emoting required. Stone is much better when she goes with the flow, beating the crap out of creepy brothel owner Eugene Dred (Kevin Conway) for initiating a child into prostitution (“She wriggled like a fish,” he brags).
Raimi’s mock-Leone style — a close-up that homes in on a bead of sweat, an auditory emphasis that makes the click of a church clock sound like a thunderclap — is fun at first. And the early gunfights are excitingly staged. Then, Raimi lets repetition sink his best effects and take the edge off his humor. In classic westerns like High Noon, the buildup to the gunfight is done in small increments. Raimi doesn’t do anything small. His movie is all gunfights as Herod takes on everyone save the kitchen help. By the time Raimi gets around to Herod’s shootouts with the Kid and Ellen, our senses are dulled beyond caring. The Quick and the Dead plays like a crazed compilation of highlights from famous westerns. Raimi finds the right look but misses the heartbeat. You leave the film dazed instead of dazzled, as if an expert marksman had drawn his gun only to shoot himself in the foot.