Directed by Sam Raimi
Written by Simon Moore
I wonder if it's kind of weird (perhaps kind of annoying) to be a filmmaker like Sam Raimi, who might well be accorded the status of a demigod by his fans, but whose single most passionately-celebrated work is Evil Dead II, a thirty-five year old film he directed at the very outset of his career, arguably only the second professional film he ever made. It was his first lasting success; it was what pigeonholed him as a horror filmmaker in the public imagination, which I'm made to understand was annoying for him, though when your "escape" from horror is Darkman, you've come by that reputation honestly. There have been several very notable successes between there and here, of course, but nothing he's done since, even Spider-Man, is all that likely to ever eclipse Evil Dead II as the signature achievement of Raimi's legacy. If anything else Raimi ever made comes close, it would probably only be Army of Darkness, f/k/a Evil Dead III. I'm not here to say that Evil Dead II hasn't earned its place. But it's fun to imagine a world where another one of his films stood side-by-side with it—look, I like Army of Darkness too, but it's not Army of Darkness.
It does seem to help if "dead" is in the title, though, even if "the quick and the dead," a phrase that pops up a few times in the New Testament, means "the quick[ened] and the dead," i.e., "everyone who's ever lived according to our broad definition of 'life,' who will meet their assigned fates on judgment day." Let's not sweat this—it's not even the first Western to appropriate the phrase for its title—for it is very cool.
The Quick and the Dead, nonetheless, was also the first time Raimi did work-for-hire, the film originating with writer Simon Moore, who apparently at least considered trying to make it independently before Sony bought it, at which point its other most important creator, Sharon Stone, came aboard, not only as star but as producer. Most of the key production decisions were Stone's, who had an unusual amount of skin in the game; she paid for at least one of the choices Sony balked at out with her own money. Crucially, it was down to Stone that Raimi, specifically, was pursued to direct—chalk up one more Evil Dead/Army of Darkness fan.
That script of Moore's was a devilishly simple thing, and it might not be a coincidence that my favorite Raimi movies have scripts committed to the Aristotlean unities, since fast, direct, in-your-face experiences dovetail so well with his style. So: what we have is one of those Western towns that barely seem like they could have existed, as built by the great production designer Patrizia von Brandenstein (well, used-to-be-great; as of 2022, she appears to have done little of note for almost twenty years, and unfortunately part of the answer to "how does one go from designing Amadeus to TV movies?" is, probably, The Quick and the Dead, which did not do especially well when it was dumped into theaters in early February 1995). This town is "Redemption," State To Be Determined, a collection of buildings plopped down in the wasteland and overshadowed by an incongruously huge clock tower that, it turns out, isn't just a visual metaphor, but of surprisingly large importance to the plot. Redemption is ruled with an iron fist by its bandit king, a barbarian invader induced to settle down, John Herod (Gene Hackman). As of late, Herod has whimsically decided to shore up his rule by enticing all his would-be adversaries to come out into the open, giving them a chance to kill him, fair and square and at least quasi-legally, in a gunfighting tournament. There's not much of a chance, of course: the ex-marauder attained his position by his own legendary skill with the gun, and though he's older now, he is by no means slower.
We meet one of the contenders on her way to Redemption, her own prowess at least suggested by how she handles a gross criminal on the way. This is "The Lady" (Stone)—at some point much later on, we learn her Christian name is "Ellen," but I think "Lady" will do. Nominally, she's after the big cash prize Herod's offered to the winner of his game, but in truth she's increasingly-transparently obsessed with her personal vendetta against Herod, who murdered her father (Gary Sinise) some twenty years before. She will, at length, get her chance, but there are numerous other participants to consider. There is Cort (Russell Crowe), a former associate of Herod's who'd sought to earn forgiveness for his sins by taking up the cloth and giving himself to God, now dragged in chains back before his old friend, explicitly so Herod can once again corrupt, then kill, a man whose search for grace he considers a condescending insult. And there's "The Kid" (Leonardo DiCaprio), Herod's own teenaged son (or, well, so he claims), an arrogant hotshot bucking against the old man. And of course let's not forget the half-dozen or so other colorful contenders who bulk up the film, even if they're rather obviously here just to get slaughtered by the principals. The notables amongst their number include Keith David's dapper professional Sergeant Clay Cantrell, Lance Henriksen's slimy braggart "Ace" Hanlon, and Jonathon Gill's arrogant indigenous superman Spotted Horse, who cannot be killed, so he says, by bullets, which means that maybe the film's sole disappointment is that he is indeed killed by bullets, and not required to be put down by, e.g., caving his skull in with a pistol butt.
So maybe the most salient thing about The Quick and the Dead is that it ought to be at least footnoted in the "best ensemble cast of all time?" conversation, even if its present-day status as (at best) an object of cult affection probably precludes that. It also has a remarkably hot cast: besides a sweaty Stone in leather pants and a young and not-so-rugged-yet Crowe, this was one of DiCaprio's first real "I'm a potential sex symbol" roles, handpicked by Stone over Sony's objections for the charisma she recognized in his wiry, gangly frame, and he's pitch-perfect as a conceited and vain little literal bastard, no matter how much his "hicks are hicks, right?" accent means he's at all times ten seconds away from accidentally shouting "GIL-BERT" again and blowing the take. Anyway, this has possibly not been in the film's favor: it didn't put butts in seats at the time and I have a sense that it's remembered as an eros-adjacent teen-centric movie intended to melt panties, ala Young Guns—to the point that the Sony copywriter who did the back-of-the-box blurb on the 4K describes it as a "wild, sexy shoot-out," and while it's certainly easy to think of less sexy movies, it's a weird way to sell a movie where the only actual sex in it at all takes place inside a hard cut, possibly because Stone acknowledged it would be modestly troubling for a producer to pay an actor's salary out of her own pocket then stage-fuck him, but just as likely because the screenplay only needs to establish Lady's humanity (and/or action-heroine bona fides) with a conquest, before getting down to the brass tacks of blowing people's brains out. (There seems to have been a romantic subplot with Cort that Stone, wisely, removed; I am also overlooking a rape, which—just so you know—also takes place offscreen.) But even so, it's an element, and unstressed or not it's one that I think does some work in terms of Stone, Moore, and Raimi's goal of stylized genre pastiche (and Stone's own likely post-Basic Instinct objectives), starting with Stone bearing a non-trivial resemblance to an in-his-prime Clint Eastwood, that goes beyond, though it does encompass, the fact that both look better than the average person while sneering and snarling.
"Pastiche" is what it is, but I became sidetracked from talking about the cast, and it's such a terribly good one. There's no use avoiding repeating what everybody else who's ever even mentioned the movie in passing has said: Gene Hackman is doing an outstanding riff on his villain from Unforgiven, so similar that stills from either movie could potentially be confused with one another, essentially "what if Little Bill wasn't just a jerk but was, in fact, Satan?" He's so immensely wicked, and self-amused in his wickedness, that he's magnetic: bizarrely chummy in the way that someone absolutely, unshakably convinced of their own invulnerability can be, and in almost every instance he's the character who's experiencing the most joy ("do you have some particular problem with me?" he asks the daughter of the man he killed and barely remembers, and the read turns this, somehow, into the funniest thing in a movie that often errs on the side of comedy). It's counterpoised, or just thrown into relief, by a scant vestigial humanity—his disquiet and anger over his alleged son's participation in his tournament—but even this is defined mostly by Hackman's rejection of human feeling, rather than pursuit of it.
Stone, then, can get left out, perhaps inevitably, flanked on one side by stars-to-be (DiCaprio, Crowe) and on the other by a Hackmaniac, but she's kind of perfect in a role that somewhat requires her to be the taciturn negative space against which the other stories play out (the Kid's arc and DiCaprio's performance being compelling in his self-destroying adolescent search for acknowledgment, while Crowe's Cort at least theoretically has a more rounded and interesting character than she does), but I actually would put Stone first, or first-after-Hackman, her stony determination being whittled down to ragged fury over the course of the film as Lady is effectively taken under Herod's tutelage to become the ruthless killer she hadn't been before he turned her into one. It's how the whole Batman side-quest she gets, involving the town pimp and an underage prostitute less-than-consensually initiated into her profession, comes off as an extremely necessary part of her story, even if it's at something of a right angle to the plot.
The pastiche, meanwhile, situates The Quick and the Dead in an unusual place for a late-period Western. Wikipedia calls it "revisionist," but I'm not sure a less revisionist Western had existed in over thirty years, with the most plainly marked-out white and black hats you can imagine. Well, at least thematically: I guess my least favorite thing about The Quick and the Dead is Dante Spinotti's photography, which is successful (and it's always technically audacious, insofar as it's a Sam Raimi movie), but pushed so far into brown—dusty sepias, leaden skies, and orange skins, at least on the white folks, and underlined by uniform dark brown or black costuming—that if it were much longer than 104 minutes, it could get tiresome, and it's an aesthetic only broken a few times, for a gunfight in a rainstorm, which is gray, and in flashback sequences, which is pretty much the same but desaturated to hell and actively ugly. In any case, the closest we get to moral grayscale is either Cort, whose face-turn, which happened years earlier, is never really in question, or the Kid, who, strictly speaking, isn't really a lead, and whose role is mostly to reemphasize the villain's villainy.
I belabor it because the upshot is it has no interest at all in revising the Western, rather than just enjoying what you can do with the Western, and a Western in the spaghetti mode specifically in acknowledged debt to Sergio Leone, though other than what seems like the pretty unavoidable recourse to "extreme close-ups of people's eyes" in a gunfighting movie (and it's not even "Scope extreme close-ups of people's eyes"), it doesn't feel that Leone-y to me. It's equally disinterested in mythmaking or in interrogating myths, fascinated instead with the carnival of violence the plot permits. (Entry into Redemption, in fact, is accompanied by its Dia de Muertos celebration.)
It does, then, feel like a Sam Raimi film—good Lord, does it—and wherever you rank it in his filmography, it is almost undeniably the most "Sam Raimi film" outside of the Evil Dead trilogy and maybe Darkman, with almost every single shot (and I mean that without hyperbole, so hundreds and hundreds of them) deeply considered in terms of how to make it intoxicatingly weird, from the characteristic zooms and swoops to angles so acute the camera must be literally buried in the ground to have captured it, to the discontinuous editing, and probably most egregiously a pair of Vertigo dolly-zooms edited against one another and, since even this wasn't loud and garish enough for Raimi, each also canted at a queasy 45 degrees. Though my second-favorite thing in the movie is a montage where an image of a laughing Herod on what amounts to a throne floats around the screen in a black void.
It's po-faced and severe enough in its narrative that it's never really in danger of becoming full-tilt self-parody, but it is almost always funny (maybe the better description would be "delightful in its manic invention"), reaching for some aggressive cartoonish abstraction of "Western shootout" in every duel. This is, of course, where all the more frivolous performances come in, though even the central quartet of more serious performances are indulged in the same ludicrous style, so that virtually every single death in this film about a shooting tournament—and which therefore boasts a double-digit body count—is approached with the intention of making it a beautiful aesthetic object first, and a meaningful exploration of violence second. (There are only two exceptions to the rule. The more important one comes in that flashback that snakes through the whole film and which comes off initially as, not to be mean about it, dead air, in its detailing of how Lady's father perished at Herod's hands; it ends up justifying itself completely, including in the way it's withheld the specific reason that Ellen became an expert gunslinger. The other exception is a bit of a spoiler, but suffice it to say that one of the core quartet dies, and their end is treated as an actual human death, which after well over an hour of video game deaths is as disorienting and destabilzing a gambit as the untethered wackiness was.) I'm not sure it was the conscious point, but it has the effect of aligning you at the outset more with the bad guy's perspective than with the hero's, inviting you to grin alongside Herod, until such point as Lady at last consents to her transformation into a weapon capable of challenging him.
I could, honestly, understand somebody who just hated it. It's something of a formal exercise—seeing how far Raimi can stretch the realist boundaries of the Western (or, hell, even just "action cinema" generally) before they completely snap. It's a thrilling formal exercise, though, and the most impressive thing about it is the amount of variety and personality Raimi packs into each of the individual duels, which are almost uniformly staged identically—"two guys stand on opposite ends of street; fire at the first bell of the hour"—and I love how he treated this constraint as a challenge to be worked within rather than something to be worked around. But I'd say it transcends any exercise, if for nothing else than the very last beat of the very last duel, staged amidst roiling flames, which, in its use of a long shadow on the ground with a piece missing, is probably my favorite single anti-realist gesture in Raimi's whole career (and therefore, I suppose, my favorite single shot in any Raimi film). But that's not the limit of it. For all that style for its own sake seems to have been Raimi's goal, it's a wonderfully disciplined and dense work of visual storytelling, so that even the showboatiest moments build upon one another for real effect, not least a number of split-diopter shots that bifurcate action between foreground and background and demand you pay attention to every detail. The good news is that as overwhelming as it is, it's almost impossible not to pay attention to it. If you don't like one abrasive application of style, another will be along shortly. And better yet, it's a surprisingly investing intertwined set of stories tied to a great Western hero (turns out it was interested in some mythmaking after all), her emotional stakes maybe pushed further back into the film's runtime than they "should" be—but for all that, perhaps striking with even greater impact when, finally, and shockingly, they do arrive.