Dead Bang

Gonzo Western The Quick and the Dead is ludicrously entertaining

Similarly, the film's three male leads all want to make their enemies admit something. Their missions intersect in ways that set off all kinds of weird, homoerotic reverberations. Cort (Russell Crowe), a former member of Herod's outlaw gang, renounced violence and became a peacenik preacher; to Herod, Cort's refusal to enter the quick-draw contest is more than a pacifist statement -- it's a rejection of the love the men once felt for each other. (When Herod orders Cort's torture, Hackman's eyes flash with both sadness and joy; it's the look of a jilted lover making his ex's life a living hell.)

Herod's teenage son, Kid (Leonardo DiCaprio, whose mix of cockiness and sensitivity recalls James Dean), has become a gunfighter to win the respect of his six-gun-twirling old man, and it's plain to see that his need for affirmation drives him toward reckless and possibly deadly showboating. Both Cort and Kid befriend and protect Ellen, not only because she's the sexiest outlaw in the territory, but also because doing so galls Herod to no end.

And cruel, twisted Herod, like Charles Foster Kane, is a feared, lonely, self-loathing patriarch. He hopes that by throwing his power around, he can force people to love him. The source of his misery is the secret knowledge that he's wrong.

This territory has been mined before, most notably by Sergio Leone. From Leone's favorite star, Clint Eastwood, through Walter Hill, John Woo and Quentin Tarantino, dozens of popcorn filmmakers have tipped their Stetson to the spaghetti Western master. Sometimes the nods are stylistic: acoustic guitar-and-lone-wolf-whistle soundtracks, screen-filling close-ups of twitchy eyes, lips and trigger fingers just before the hot lead starts flying. Other times, as in Woo's movies, the references are of a narrative and emotional nature. Leone gravitated toward hard-boiled parables of macho men chasing money, respect or revenge, blasting their way through set piece after megaviolent set piece, each encounter raising the storytelling stakes from escapism to soap opera to opera and finally to myth.

Raimi's The Quick and the Dead feels like For a Few Dollars More played at double speed, and he never uses a simple shot when a spectacular one will do. Fortunately, he has strong material to work with. Simon Moore's solid B-movie craftsmanship acts as a safety net for Raimi's looniness; it frees Raimi to improvise without digressing. (According to the press kit, Moore is a Brit who never set foot in the American Southwest until he visited the set of this movie. Maybe his script feels so raw and pure because, like Sergio Leone's Italian Westerns, it was conceived through fresh eyes -- the eyes of an outsider drunk on another culture's fairy tales.)

Raimi comes up with some virtuoso touches that invoke an array of pop cultural sources, from Hitchcock to Welles to the mid-'50s Warner Bros. cartoon factory, but none is deployed for its own sake; they're designed to rev crucial moments into such high gear that they explode. Early on, when a menacing gunfighter enters a saloon with his back to the sun, the camera leaves Ellen's startled face and follows her gaze, darting down toward the floor, then tracking along his monumental shadow for a tension-filled eternity. Later, when Ellen times her quick draw to coincide with the sound of a gear in the town clock clicking into place, Raimi zooms toward the clock tower at high speed, intercutting rapidly with the heroine's eyes so her mind seems to fuse with time itself. And when Herod fires a killing shot into a rival's face, Raimi shows us the back of the man's head in the foreground a split second before a cartoonishly gigantic hole is blasted through it -- revealing Herod.

It's easy for snobs, academics and killjoys of every stripe to dismiss a film such as The Quick and the Dead as junk. It is junk, to be sure, but it's junk made with such wit and passion that it transcends its disreputable origins. (Compare it with other recent Westerns that attempted a pop-operatic feel, Posse, for example, and its excellence becomes even more apparent.)

In the process, the film establishes Raimi as some kind of warped national treasure. His absolute commitment to hyperkinetic excellence makes every frame sing. His enthusiasm is infectious; he's like a berserk cartoon bandido drunk on tequila, charging down the street, firing his guns in the air and whooping for joy.

The Quick and the Dead.
Directed by Sam Raimi. With Sharon Stone, Gene Hackman, Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe.

Rated R.
103 minutes.

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