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Brilliant and Forgotten: A Look Back at the Sam Raimi’s ‘The Quick and The Dead’

1995’s The Quick and The Dead was ahead of its time.

The quirky Sam Raimi western didn’t do well at the box office, and still has a low rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Of course, this was before Sam Raimi was today’s Sam Raimi. Back then Raimi was the Evil Dead guy. He was the guy who made silly exploitative horror movies with his Michigan buddies. Raimi wasn’t the guy who was thought of as a “serious” filmmaker. Most importantly, it was before he made the huge blockbuster Spider-Man in 2001 which went on to redefine his entire career. Raimi was always a great filmmaker, but Spider-Man turned him into a top-level studio tent-poll king.

But back in 1995 that wasn’t the case. The Quick and The Dead was a certified flop. It barely took in half of its estimated $32M budget. But no one remembers that. After all, Raimi’s current blockbuster Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness is poised to cross a BILLION dollars worldwide. Besides, why would anyone celebrate their failure?

Because it’s brilliant.

The Quick and The Dead is about a town controlled by a despotic leader set against the backdrop of their annual quick draw competition. If that sounds like watching two hours of alpha male dick measuring, you’d be right . . . if it weren’t for the presence of the mysterious “Lady” who enters the competition to settle a lifelong score. A woman in the very male western world is strange enough, but one that can shoot too? Who would they get to play her?

In 1995 Sharon Stone was arguably at the height of her fame.

Although she’d been working steady since first appearing as “Pretty Girl on the Train” in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories way back in 1980, her career went into the stratosphere with the release of Paul Verhoeven’s sexually charged thriller Basic Instinct in 1992. In the three years after Basic Instinct Stone could seemingly do no wrong. Even her lesser efforts like Sliver with William Baldwin, and The Specialist with Sylvester Stallone, while both critically savaged, were still worldwide box office darlings. Not only was Stone a legitimate box office draw at the time, she was poised to work with Martin Scorsese in what would become her Oscar nominated/Golden Globe winning performance in his latest gangster film Casino. It was obvious why Stone could demand certain concessions in her contract at the time including casting choices and director approval for The Quick and The Dead.

It’s hard to imagine today that casting Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio would be considered unusual, but that’s exactly what it was back in 1995. Along with insisting on Raimi as director, Sharon Stone insisted on casting them both in the movie.

Crowe had not yet starred in his breakout American performance L.A. Confidential (1997) and it was five years before his Oscar winning performance in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000). In 1995 Crowe really only had one unique breakthrough indie role generating him some buzz. Romper Stomper (1992), while a critical success, was somewhat of a tough sell to the US for Crowe. It was about white supremacists in Australia with Crowe playing their savage leader, Hando. How could Hollywood use a guy like that? Stone knew. She had him cast as Cort, the conflicted preacher with a dark past. Crowe is terrific in this as the sympathetic reformed killer looking to God for his salvation. He gets to show his future range as both an actor and as an action star. Crowe even gets to do a love scene with Stone that was ultimately cut from the US release, although it can be seen in some hard-to-find European versions of the film.

While quickly becoming a critical darling especially since his Oscar nominated performance in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and more recent work in The Basketball Diaries, DiCaprio was not yet a box office headliner. Perhaps still best known for his work on TV’s Growing Pains, DiCaprio was only nineteen at the time Stone insisted he be cast as “The Kid.”

The Kid, funny, horny, and happy provides some much-needed levity to the deadly shooting contest. His energy is infectious and he navigates the sea of depravity throughout the town without it ever seeming to touch him. Both Matt Damon and David Arquette were being considered for the part of The Kid with Damon reportedly turning it down. But Stone was so insistent they cast DiCaprio that she agreed to pay his salary herself. The Kid is so full of confidence he walks through town like he owns the place…but he doesn’t. That honor belongs to The Kid’s father Herod, played with quiet cool by the always brilliant Gene Hackman.

The western most people associate Hackman with was his Oscar winning performance as Little Bill Daggett in Clint Eastwood’s The Unforgiven three years earlier. The Unforgiven was immediately considered a classic and won the Best Picture Oscar; it still holds up today. For those who may have found it unusual for Hackman to star in another western so close on the heels of his work in Unforgiven, it’s worth pointing out The Quick and The Dead was actually the third western he did after his Oscar win. Hackman also starred in both Geronimo: An American Legend and Wyatt Earp before stepping up for the final western of his career with The Quick and The Dead. Although Hackman retired from acting back in 2004, he left behind some amazing performances and one of them must be considered his work in this.

Herod’s presence as the town’s ruler is so intimidating people literally can’t meet his gaze. Herod is clearly a thinly veiled representation of the devil himself. We see through flashbacks and in real-time Herod’s cruel and sadistic nature all the while being charmed by his evil smile.

But it’s Hackman’s use of Simon Moore’s over-the-top dialogue that must be seen to be believed. “This is my town!” Herod bellows, “If you live to see the dawn, it’s because I allow it!” Only someone as instantly credible as Hackman could pull that line off. His ease with the dialogue is only matched by his literal grace with his pistol. Hackman’s Herod is ruler for a reason.

No man is his better in a gunfight. His showdowns with a Hollywood’s who’s who of amazing character actors, all at their very best, is a sight to see. They also provide some of the darkest humor of the film.

Lance Henriksen as the devilishly slick Ace Hanlon, who amazes the town with his card/gun tricks and big stories, does some of his finest work in this film. Henriksen considers Hanlon one of his favorite characters played.

Henriksen’s Hanlon is joined by another self-described shootist, Sgt. Cantrell played with a formidable stature by Keith David. David is also amazing in this film and has one of the film’s funniest understated lines not spoken by Hackman. When asking for contestants to sign up for the contest, the bartender, played by the great Pat Hingle, asks the men to shout out their names for entry to the contest. When David announces, “Sgt. Cantrell,” Hingle responds writing on the board, “How do you spell that?” David coldly replies, “Correctly.”

It’s an awesome moment of character development and one of my favorite moments in the film. This intensity gives even more credibility to Sgt. Cantrell’s final showdown with Herod. Other quick draw contestants are played by stalwart bad guy mainstays like Mark Boone Junior and future Saw franchise madman Jigsaw, Tobin Bell.

The Quick and The Dead also boasts some interesting movie trivia.

It is the great Woody Strode’s final film. After years of amazing performances from Strode, especially in westerns, it is fitting he’d end his movie career with this unique entry into the genre. Sven-Ole Thorson, who would later go up against Russell Crowe in Gladiator five years later, here plays Gutzon, the “Swedish Champion.” Thorson, despite being a hulking figure in real-life, actually pokes fun at his own persona, providing some of the film’s funniest moments. Gary Sinise was just beginning his exceptional work in film when he played the town’s former Marshall in flashbacks for The Quick and The Dead. Fresh off his career-making Oscar nominated role Lt. Dan in the Academy Award winning Forrest Gump a year earlier, Sinise would go on to star in both Apollo 13 and Truman the same year. Getting him to play the pivotal Marshall role was considered somewhat of a casting coup at the time.

One of the coolest moments in The Quick and The Dead is the incredible gunfight set in the pouring rain. The fight is between Stone’s Lady and the lecherous pimp Eugene played by the always solid Kevin Conway. For those of you unfamiliar with screen actor union rules, actors get paid extra when working with water effects. It’s for good reason, it’s awful. It took several days to shoot this scene and Conway said it was one of the hardest of his entire career. Raimi uses all the tricks in his magic chest for this scene and it has a several great payoffs. I think the technical perfection of the practical effects of this scene holds up against any other future film Raimi has ever done.

For everything Sharon Stone did behind the scenes to make this movie happen it’s worth pointing out how good her performance is in the film itself. Stone’s Lady says very little and is wisely understated against the sea of veteran scene stealers. For this reason, I think Stone wins the day in her performance. It must have been a temptation to go over-the-top or match the energy of those around her, but instead she wisely underplays many significant moments to great effect.

Her dinner scene with Herod where her nerves get the best of her, thwarting her plans, is one of the most compelling.

Stone allows herself to be afraid and not up to the task. This is not only refreshing from an actor that would normally be full of ego at this point in their career, it’s absolutely the right choice. It also makes her final scene in the film far more rewarding. Stone has also never looked more beautiful than she does in this film even though her character seemingly wears no makeup and is often hung over.

In the early years after her meteoric success in Basic Instinct, Hollywood only wanted to see Sharon Stone the sex symbol. In The Quick and The Dead, then later the same year in the Scorsese masterpiece Casino, they got to see Sharon Stone the actress as well.

The Quick and The Dead has everything – revenge, epic gunfights, and some often overlooked incredible performances by some of the greatest actors in the business. But the star power wasn’t just in front of the camera. Besides Raimi in the director’s chair, John Sayles is said to have done on-set rewrites during production, and future Firefly creator Joss Whedon was also brought on as a writer to help shape the film’s explosive finale.

For anyone who watches The Quick and The Dead and only sees exploitation and splatter, I say they aren’t watching the same film I am. This film works on nearly every level, as a piece of film history, as an acting clinic, and as one damn entertaining piece of art.

 

 

 

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