Some Westerns feature spectacular vistas and stories about the greatness of the Old West. Other Westerns focus themselves on the process of settling the land and the coming of the modern era. And some Westerns just focus on killing, allegedly in the name of justice, but more just for the sake of having a shootout. Sam Raimi's 1995 work, The Quick and The Dead, is definitely in this last mold.
The film is centered in the town of Redemption, a dismal backwater kind of place run by the one-time robber John Herod (Gene Hackman). On a yearly basis, Herod holds a quick-draw tournament – ostensibly, he explains, so that people challenge him in a fair fight rather than trying to shoot him in the back.
With the exception of a few flashbacks, the film takes place during the quick-draw tournament as fate, or luck, or something else has brought together this particular group of contestants this year. While all the characters in the film are colorful ones, none of them are exceptionally deep or three-dimensional. They certainly are all given motivations for their actions, but the point of the film is less the motivations and the characters than it is to give Raimi an opportunity to use his highly-stylized sensibilities and horror background in a Western.
That part of the film works wonderfully. With lots of Dutch angles, zooms, and creative camera trickery, the film, shot by cinematographer Dante Spinotti (Heat) and edited by Pietro Scalia (JFK) keeps audiences interested in every single gunfight. Even though there are plenty of them in the film and they all have a similar feel, they're all executed (no pun intended) differently and are all fascinating to watch unfold.
The characters and story in Simon Moore's (Traffik) screenplay are, unfortunately, not quite as interesting as the camerawork and editing. Herod is well aware that he's not liked by anyone, but he doesn't particularly care either. He is solely interested in power and money and he has a lot of both. As portrayed by Hackman, the man is irredeemably evil — picture Lex Luthor with a six-shooter, if Lex Luthor had a kid, because in this film Herod does.
Portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio, Fee Herod (known as "The Kid"), is Herod's illegitimate offspring and, in Herod's opinion, a truly unworthy successor. The Kid, however, is fast, potentially as fast as Herod. DiCaprio, while he may have grown into a far better actor in more recent years, is not at the top of his game in this film. Though his character is supposed to be overly exuberant, as DiCaprio plays him he comes off as far less sympathetic – and far more annoying – than he ought to be.
While those characters are crucially important to the film, neither of them is the lead. That distinction goes to Sharon Stone who portrays Ellen (known as "The Lady"). She shows up in Redemption with what seems like a death wish but also an incredibly fast gun. Her backstory is something of a mystery, but she is clearly angry at Herod for reasons unknown.
The other main character in the film is Cort (Russell Crowe). A one-time partner of Herod's, Cort is now a preacher and has been dragged to the tournament unwillingly. Though the audience knows just as well as Herod does that Cort will end up fighting, the preacher himself seems somewhat less sure of what he's going to do.
While these characters may all have interesting stories, they are certainly not the reason to watch the film, mainly because those stories are never explored. The film chooses to use a few flashbacks for The Lady's story, but much of what we learn about the characters is simply stated by one of them rather than shown to the audience. In the end, it is Raimi's work that is the true star of the film and which keeps the audience intrigued throughout.
The new Blu-ray release of The Quick and the Dead features a dearth of special features. The only one included is the new movieIQ, which links to an online database and can provide viewers with access to background information on all aspects of the film and actors as the movie plays out.
On the technical side, the visuals for the most part look very good. Missing appendages and holes in various portions of people's anatomy are shown with good levels of detail. There are a number of scenes, however, where there is noticeable noise and/or imperfections in the print used. These are only mildly distracting, but still certainly disappointing. The TrueHD 5.1 channel sound is better than the visuals, particularly during some of the sequences in which it is raining — there the surrounds come into play wonderfully and really place the viewer inside the film.
A visual feast without a fully developed story or characters, The Quick and the Dead is liable to leave audiences mesmerized but never fully satisfied. What one sees may be great, but there is little supporting it.