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Dead Bang

Gonzo Western The Quick and the Dead is ludicrously entertaining

About ten minutes into Sam Raimi's Western The Quick and the Dead, his nomadic, gunslinging heroine, Ellen (Sharon Stone), slouches down in a rickety chair on the front porch of a saloon in the middle of Redemption, a Southwestern town so desolate even the cacti look withered, and lets a blind shoeshine boy polish her boots. She's supposedly arrived to enter a legendary quick-draw contest, but she's really here to kill the man who murdered her daddy years back.

Suddenly, into town rides a bald, drooling, scarfaced, half-blind convict wearing prison stripes and leg manacles. The shoeshine boy identifies him (by smell, presumably) as a recently incarcerated murderer.

"Got 45 years, didn't ya?" asks the shoeshine boy.
"Sure did," replies the convict.
"How much time'd ya serve?"

"Three days!" the convict screeches. In short order, this slimy little ogre helps himself to a beer, shoots a fleeing foe from a hundred paces, and makes an unsuccessful pass at Ellen. Then he taunts the shoeshine boy by dumping over the contents of his equipment chest and, snarling and cackling, exits the frame, presumably to rest up for the contest.

The sequence unfolds with such confidence that it takes a moment to register its preposterous subtext: this murderer busted out of the joint and rode across the desert to participate in a quick-draw competition, and instead of hiding, he made a loutish public spectacle of himself -- and nobody seemed to care.

The full import of what you've just seen sinks in: Redemption is a defiantly unreal world where the extremes of human behavior barely merit a raised eyebrow. This is Hobbes' Town of Nature -- a video game-ish dream zone populated by angels, demons, nymphs, satyrs, gargoyles and sacrificial lambs, lorded over by a gunfighter-turned-dictator named Herod (Gene Hackman, in a performance so delightedly villainous that it's a wonder the filmmakers didn't provide him with a fake mustache to twirl). It's a place where anything can happen at any time.

And with Sam Raimi at the helm, there's never a dull moment. Although he's been pegged by the Hollywood establishment as a splatterflick auteur (his debut film, 1983's zombie classic The Evil Dead, was so disgusting it had to be released unrated in the United States and is still banned in certain European countries), his ever-growing cult realizes that he's essentially a parodist -- a mutant offspring of Brian DePalma, Tex Avery and the Three Stooges who tries to win laughs by pushing the boundaries of good taste. This quest leads him to bend and break Hollywood rules, both in his choice of subject matter (two sequels to The Evil Dead, the gothic superhero fable Darkman and the Coen brothers' slapstick business comedy The Hudsucker Proxy, which he co-wrote) and visual tricks (a camera that rises, dips, zooms, pans and swoops as if strapped to a seagull with a head injury).

Raimi's films virtually define the term "acquired taste"; you either connect with his twisted sensibilities on a gut level or you don't.

It might sound odd to say this about a man who has never made a PG-rated movie, but Raimi might be the most childlike filmmaker in America. When he's working at full-throttle, swirling his camera, warping his images and zapping your ears with a wall of wild sound effects, he's like a brilliant third-grader shoving a crude, colorful drawing in your face and pealing, "Look what I did! Isn't it cool?" He is to film direction what Quentin Tarantino is to scriptwriting, Jackie Chan is to stunt work and Jim Carrey is to comic improvisation; he's a control freak who somehow makes everything he does appear spontaneous. (I recall proclaiming that if Carrey ever hooked up with a director as inventive as himself, the results could make viewers' heads explode. Raimi's the man. Is anybody listening?)

The Quick and the Dead, like Darkman, forces Raimi to work within a genre with fairly strict rules. When you're directing a revenge Western, if you don't create noble heroes, loathsome villains and colorful supporting characters with interesting motivations, no amount of visual trickery can hold an audience's attention. Fortunately, Simon Moore's screenplay is dead bang perfect. The Quick and the Dead is conceived in purely cinematic terms; every line and image is filtered through our collective Western memories.

Yet even Moore's most audacious conceits -- such as giving viewers an apocalyptic final showdown every ten minutes -- and his numerous faux-symbolic touches -- such as naming the town Redemption and stocking it with characters named Scars, Spotted Horse, Ace, Kid and Herod (who, in the New Testament, presided over a massacre of innocents) -- feel sincere, because each scene is anchored in strong, simple emotion.

At first, Sharon Stone's Ellen comes on like an enigmatic sourpuss, reminiscent of Clint Eastwood in his "Man with No Name" mode. Raimi lights and frames her like an icon born with chaps and a hip holster, which wouldn't work if Stone didn't possess more old-style charisma than any other A-list actress around (she's got Garbo's body and Joan Crawford's brittle attitude). Yet Ellen isn't a cipher. A series of gradually expanding flashbacks, coupled with a few choice moments of fear and hesitation, reveal her as a complex woman with contradictory attitudes toward the violence she dishes out. What Ellen wants, perhaps even more than simple revenge, is acknowledgment of her pain and suffering. She wants to force the man who killed her father to face what he did and admit his own villainy.

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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