No one talks about Sam Raimi’s foray into western territory anymore. The Quick and the Dead was released in 1995 to a small box-office return and a critical cold shoulder. Watching the new 4K Blu-ray, I can announce that this is one of the most beautiful Westerns ever filmed.
There is a lot to like in Raimi’s film, and that is why I am baffled by its initial critical reception. True, the story doesn’t work as a dramatic narrative; it’s just a loose laundry line upon which to hang a series of dazzling shoot-out set pieces. The audience keeps wondering why anyone in their right mind would live in this town; the locals just mill about like moping sad sacks waiting for the next terrible event. Yet I wonder sometimes if the real appeal of Westerns lies in narrative at all. Like the musical, are we not there primarily for the predictable, soothing tropes of the genre—its highlights, if you will? Of course, you can have a great story in a Western; but you can also have a great Western without much of a story.
Tombstone and The Three Amigos.) Between the set designer’s re-dressing and the film’s careful framing, you would be hard-pressed to recognize it here. Spinotti makes us see the familiar in a new light.
I have never kept secret my love of talented character actors and this film contains the mother lode, both in actors new to film and favorite seasoned veterans. I would argue that The Quick and the Dead’s supporting players are so good that they overshadow the leads. We have Russell Crowe in his first American film; Leonardo DiCaprio just two years before becoming a superstar in Titanic; Tobin Bell, Kevin Conway, Keith David, Lance Henriksen, Pat Hingle, and Gary Sinise in small roles; and Woody Strode and Roberts Blossom in the final film of their respective careers. All of them are terrific and memorable in The Quick and the Dead, even if some of them are afforded precious little screen time.
Could the film’s relative failure be due to the casting of a female in the lead role in a genre famous for testosterone-fueled narrative? Sharon Stone’s performance is not one of the highlights of the film, but it’s not embarrassing. She holds her own with Gene Hackman, The Man Who Never Gave A Bad Performance.
Roger Ebert noted in his review when the film was released that, “I am beginning to believe [Gene Hackman] is an actor who can say anything and make it work. As preposterous as the plot was, there was never a line of Hackman dialogue that didn't sound as if he believed it.” Ebert, of course, was right. Hackman really helps sell the ludicrous plot. By casting him, the filmmakers seem to be saying, “If Gene Hackman believes this story, then gol-durnit, you should too.”
(Thrilling to see Sam Raimi and Dante Spinotti working at the peak of their talents.)
(Chilling that a then-unpopular genre and unusual casting could sink a film that contained this much to recommend.)
(Stunts, explosions, and shoot-outs done the old-fashioned way)