The bloodthirsty spirit of the Roman Circus invades the Old West in “The Quick and the Dead,” an ill-flavored concoction that tastes like warmed-over spaghetti. The distinction brought to this endeavor by a top-flight cast proves quite unwarranted, as Sam Raimi’s foray into a new genre comes off as silly, cynical and derivative. Like last year’s femme Western entry “Bad Girls,” this will likely come out quick on the B.O. draw but run out of ammo fast.
With Westerns back in fashion in recent seasons, the time has certainly been ripe for a good gender-bending, revisionist oater with gun-toting female leads. But no one has gotten it right yet, with this latest attempt going south by keeping star Sharon Stone on the sidelines most of the time and confining most of the action to a single claustrophobic street, the setting for a far-fetched quick-draw contest that only one person is meant to survive.
The ghost of Sergio Leone is summoned with the opening scene, which has the rough-riding Stone galloping across the plains and outsmarting an old coot who tries to pick her off her horse. From here on, the zoom shots, glaring sun, closeups of eyes, unerring marksmanship, costume fetishism, brooding silences, revenge motif, flashbacks and pseudo-Morricone score, among many other stylistic flourishes, mark this as an elaborate tribute to the late Italian maestro.
But for all his extreme stylization, Leone was also an obsessive student of Western lore, resulting in films that were steeped in detail. By contrast, “The Quick and the Dead” feels utterly unauthentic from the moment Stone, playing a stranger named Ellen, rides into the hell-hole called Redemption and signs up to take part in an annual tournament in which the town’s citizens basically kill each other off in a series of gun duels.
Presiding over this slaughter like a mad emperor from his red velvet chair is Herod (Gene Hackman), who not only rules the town but, as the territory’s fastest gun, wins the competition every year. Ostensibly, he uses the contest as a means of thinning the ranks of would-be rivals, but basically he’s just mean and loves gunning people down. With Herod in charge, there’s order in Redemption , but no law.
Among the many who this year are putting their lives on the line in hopes of dethroning the champ and nabbing a big cash prize are the Kid (Leonardo DiCaprio), a cocksure teenager who may be Herod’s son; Ace Hanlon (Lance Henriksen), a snake in black leather; Scars (Mark Boone Junior), who’s so tough that he notches his kills, not on his gunhandle, but on his arm; Sgt. Cantrell (Keith David), a black gun-for-hire whose cool, pipe-smoking manner bears more than a passing resemblance to Lee Van Cleef’s Colonel in “For a Few Dollars More”; and an Indian (Jonothon Gill) so mystical he believes no bullet can kill him.
Also dragged into the arena is Cort (Russell Crowe), Herod’s former partner in crime who’s now gotten religion. The wild card here is Ellen, who talks trash , belts back the booze with the best of them and can even hold her own in a fight, but most of the time skulks around looking tense and nervous in her designer duds. Of course, she’s a woman with a secret, a reason for revenge against Herod that is only gradually revealed in a series of sepia-tinged flashbacks straight out of “Once Upon a Time in the West.”
Given the inevitability of an Ellen-Herod showdown, despite a couple of twists British screenwriter Simon Moore has thrown into the last reel, the film quickly becomes hamstrung by the rigiddramatic constraints imposed upon it by the gun tournament format. No matter how many fancy ways Raimi invents to stage the shootouts, the tedium is quick in coming, and there’s nothing else going on between times to build up suspense, character or interest.
With her tough, can-do, manhandling reputation, Stone would have seemed the ideal quick-draw cowgirl, and she looks great in her dusty leather gear. But it was a crucial mistake to make her so uptight and scared about her looming confrontation with Herod; no one’s looking for psychological or even behavioral complexity in this sort of genre confection, just iconographic grace notes and action thrills. Ellen’s weak-heartedness even contradicts the confident way she comports herself in her few moments of action, resulting in an inconsistently drawn character even under the cartoonish circumstances. Although laying on the visual razzle-dazzle and toying with genre conventions, Raimi never finds a proper tone, wobbling somewhere between modern cool and knowing sendup. Dialogue and line readings lean seriously toward the contemporary, while special effects are engineered to produce gee-whiz reactions, particularly a repeated one in which the camera peers all the way through holes in the bodies of people who have just been shot.
In the sizable role of Herod, Hackman has taken his Oscar-winning characterization as the mean-spirited sheriff in “Unforgiven” and magnified the evil tenfold, to near-lampoon effect. DiCaprio has fun as the young upstart who flirts with Stone, and those playing supporting cretins try to outdo each other in projecting depraved venality without actually smacking their lips and twirling their mustaches.
Dante Spinotti’s camera dexterously swoops and darts everywhere, and Patrizia von Brandenstein has had great fun in making Herod’s compound look almost like a wicked witch’s house. Pic is dedicated to the late Woody Strode, who makes his final screen appearance here with the briefest of bits in the early going.