Women of the West: The Quick and the Dead (1995)

The Sam Raimi-directed "The Quick and the Dead" doesn't have a terrific reputation. It did poorly in the box office when it came out and was largely dismissed by critics who found it clich├ęd.

I'm fond of it. There was a very brief moment in time when it looked like Sharon Stone was going to be a genuine Hollywood giant. Her resume had largely been of appearing in roles that I suspect were written as "blonde" and "beautiful" and then proving to be wildly interesting in them — she could alternate between daffy and flinty, and was obviously far smarter than anyone gave her credit for.

In fact, she used to irritate people by falsely claiming to belong to Mensa, a high-IQ society, but I can't blame her for that. When you are smart but constantly treated as stupid, as happens with women, there is great incentive to try to showcase your intelligence somehow.

Coming off the enormous success of "Basic Instinct" — which I think everybody agrees was a terrible, trashy film that barely works as camp, but which Stone was terrific in — Sharon Stone had the rare opportunity to write her own ticket. Stone has gone on to have a largely unheralded but genuinely fascinating career as a producer and executive producer, including the extraordinary Holocaust documentary "My Name is Water."

But I love the fact that the first film she produced was a revisionist Western. She pushed for Sam Raimi to direct it, which was an odd, remarkable choice, as Raimi was then best known as the director of low-budget cult horror films. She also insisted on hiring both Russell Crowe (in his first American films) and Leonardo DiCaprio, going so far as to pay for DiCaprio's salary out of her own pocket when the studios balked.

Nowadays, it is impossible to imagine a time when studios would think twice about Raimi, who helmed the popular "Spider Man" movies, or Crowe or DiCaprio, who have nine Oscar nominations between them. So the first thing we can say about this film is it was an expression of extraordinary good taste on Stone's part — she has a genuine eye for talent.

The film itself, detailing a fast-draw dueling competition in a Mexican town ruled by a former desperado (Gene Hackman, offering a gloss on his character from "Unforgiven"), is, at times, a bit of a mess. The originally script, by the superb British screenwriter Simon Moore, was largely rewritten by John Sayles, and then, reportedly, rewritten back to its original form by Moore, and then worked over again by Joss Whedon.

It never lands on a consistent tone, alternating between pastiche, parody, somber meditation on the nature of revenge, and grim story of frontier morality. Everybody seems to be in a different movie, which I can't blame the cast for, as all their characters seem to be written for a different movie. Stone is in the revenge story, and she plays it tortured and terrified. Hackman is in the frontier morality story, performing as a cheerful bully created by the lawlessness of the West. Crowe does a surprisingly good job navigating between both stories, playing a preacher who was once part of Hackman's gang; he simmers at Hackman, offers helpful advice to Stone, and demonstrates an impresive facility with a pistol.

DiCaprio is in a DiCaprio movie, playing Hackman's son as a troubled showboat, desperate to prove himself to his father — which, in this instance, means trying to kill him in a duel. He has a anguished meltdown at one point, which DiCaprio always does very well.

Everyone else is in a satire, and it's delicious. There's a burly slob named Scar who literally escaped from prison so recently that he still wears the stripes, and he cuts a scar into his arm every time he kills someone. There's a Native American gunfighter named Spotted Horse who participates in the frontier tradition of preposterous boasting, claiming he cannot be killed by a bullet, and then nearly proves it to be the literal truth.

Best of all, there is Lance Henriksen as Ace Hanlon, a leather-clad gunfighter who is trying far too hard to make his first name into his signature: His tight black cowboy costume is covered with aces, and he showcases a deck filled with aces for every man he killed — it's nothing but aces. He even has a trick where he gives a girl a card, leaps off his horse, draws and shoots from under it, perforating the card and shooting the ace right off it. I have a feeling we are supposed to find him ridiculous, but, God help me, I want to be Ace Hanlon.

Raimi barrels through the whole thing with his usual visual panache, which includes an endless number of delightful visual jokes. Stone beats up a desperado and chains him to a wagon at the start of the film, and he shows up later with the wagon wheel dragging behind him, still attached to his leg. Stone peeks into a back room at one point and finds another movie going on, with the local Mexican villagers paying a gunfighter to protect them from their bandit mayor — this is the plot to "The Magnificent Seven," albeit with the tremendous Keith David as the gunfighter. It's quite a decision to literally have a parody of "Magnificent Seven" playing out in the background of the main film.

The film looks terrific. Raimi and his production designers approach the film with a fetishist's love for the subject. The film is overstuffed with genuine guns from the era, all works of exquisite craftsmanship, often twirled by the cast with impressive dexterity. The sets are overdecorated, like one of those restaurants that fills every nook and cranny with antiques — the walls are covered with old photos, newspaper clippings, wanted posters, and the like.

Raimi also endlessly borrows showy filming techniques from Spaghetti Westerns, coupled with his own delirious sensibilities, which often come very close to a Warner Brothers cartoon. When someone is shot in this film, you discover the fact when they see their shadow, with the light from the sun shining right through a hole in their midsection.

So the film is a mess. It's also a delightful one, made with astonishing verve and invention and showcasing an extraordinary cast — aside from the leads, the movie takes a film buff's pleasure in locating eccentric character actors and letting them show off.

The film is also notable because it takes seriously the idea of a Western starring a woman playing a Clint Eastwood-style gunfighter. There are only a few comments in the film about Stone's gender, and few scenes that highlight her gender. She may or may not have a fling with DiCaprio (although she insists she doesn't), and an actual love scene with Crowe was cut out of the film, so she mostly inhabits the movie as simply another gunfighter, albeit one seeking revenge.

In fact, the only thing that really distinguishes Stone's character from an Eastwood character is that she seems to want to do more with it. Eastwood typically played his role with a sardonic deadpan, a scowling minimalism. Stone doesn't bother with this, instead favoring a sullen nervousness that is more naturalistic than Eastwood; she plays the role as someone constantly hiding the fact that she is terrified. But this doesn't feel gendered — it feels like a character choice, and it gives Stone's character an arc as she goes from pretending to be a gunfighter to becoming a killer.

It is a more interesting decision than I think the film requires, consistent with Stone's previous work.


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