Coiled and trancelike and as stylized as Kabuki, shoot-outs are the big, tasty payoffs of Western drama — the candy at the end of the meal — and The Quick and the Dead (Tristar, R) packs as many of these hair-trigger confrontations into one movie as possible. Think of it as the Western equivalent of a Whitman’s Sampler. The plot of this low-camp revenge thriller is little more than an excuse to line up one badass cowboy (or girl) opposite another and let the eyeball-to-eyeball fireworks fly.
Sharon Stone, her long blond hair spilling down her back, her lips glued together with sober resolve, is the heroine, a mysterious loner who rides into the town of Redemption, where the locals are about to commence their annual quick-draw tournament. This deadly contest is the brainchild of Herod (Gene Hackman), the omnipotent lawman-despot, who uses it to weed out his rivals and prove that he’s still the fastest gun in town. The rules are simple. Anyone who signs up can challenge any other contestant to a duel; whoever wins, usually by wounding his opponent, goes on to the next round. The victor of the final duel — a fight to the death — walks away with a cash prize. It’s A Fistful of Dollars meets Wimbledon.
The Quick and the Dead was directed by Sam Raimi, the gonzo B-movie prankster who made Darkman and the Evil Dead trilogy, and for a while he piles on the Western cliches with such knowing density that it looks as if the entire film is going to be a put-on. From the pseudo-mythic Spanish guitar music to the plug-ugly cowboys brandishing their gold teeth at the camera, Raimi seems to toss every ancient flourish he can into his flamboyant Western cocktail. The surprise is that he ends up playing the clichés straight; this is the first time Raimi’s spirit seems weighed down by the conventions of big-studio moviemaking. The shoot-outs, which he obviously got a kick out of staging, are edgy and fun. They’re like caffeinated versions of the languorously protracted duels in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns. In one witty bit, two men draw and fire, and the loser gazes down at his shadow and sees a bullet hole poking through the middle of it. At moments like that, you can taste the comic-book impudence of Raimi’s imagination. It’s only when each showdown ends that you realize there’s virtually nothing going on in the rest of the movie.
There wasn’t much going on in the spaghetti Westerns, either (and what little there was sounded as if it had been dubbed by Mexican border patrolmen reading their lines at gunpoint), but the films were held together by Clint Eastwood’s cracked-granite magnetism. Trying for this same sort of authority, Stone seems passive and blah, a bystander in her own movie. The Quick and the Dead makes the fatal mistake of trying to ”humanize” its heroine (there are repeated flashbacks to the incident that ruined her life). Stone, for all her moxie, spends much of the movie looking as if she’s on the verge of tears. A sensitive existential tough-girl gunslinger? Sorry, it’s ludicrous.
As the evil Herod, Hackman does a gloss on his cheerful fascist from Unforgiven. He’s in good form, but there’s no surprise left in seeing him play this smiling control freak. Of the secondary characters, the only one who escapes sketchbook thinness is Herod’s son, a precocious teen gunslinger played by Leonardo DiCaprio in a performance so guileless and cocky he’s like a junior version of Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy. Of course, the superficiality of the characters wasn’t a problem in Raimi’s other films; those pictures reveled in their lurid cartooniness. Perhaps he’s trying to outgrow his brazenly adolescent style, but if so, he picked the wrong genre in which to do it. The Quick and the Dead is too light to pack the dramatic punch of a true Western and too flat to pass as cheeky revisionism. It ends up in its own amiable, slowpoke limbo. C