Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The Quick and the Dead (1995)

Here's another uneven experience from 1995. It's primary flaw is one that plagues a lot of movies: its most interesting character isn't its main one. Sharon Stone is the star, and she plays The Lady, a mysterious vigilante who rides into a Western town on a vendetta. There isn't much more to her than that. As played by Stone, there might even be less.

But on the periphery lies a far more interesting subject and a far more interesting performance: a former outlaw turned preacher turned criminal named Cort. He is played by Russell Crowe. It is one of his first American performances (he'd already been a star in Australia for years), but he's already the most magnetic presence onscreen and sports a flawsless accent. The movie provides him a complete and satisfying story, but it keeps pushing him off to the edges of the frame so Stone can remain the focus. We keep wanting Crowe to nudge her out of the way and regain the spotlight.

The Lady's thirst for vengeance stems from her father's murder years ago and the hands of an outlaw named Herod (Gene Hackman). Now Herod reigns as some kind of dictator over his tiny Western town, everyone has to pay him outrageous taxes in exchange for his protection. Every year he hosts a contest for gunfighters: an elimination tournament where the last man standing is the victor. He's practically enticing his subjects to assassinate him — this year, Herod suspects the townspeople have hired a shootist to beat him — but the fact that he's still alive makes it clear that he reigns over the town because he is the fastest and the meanest and no one yet has been able to kill him. Herod is the pulp version of Little Bill Daggett from Unforgiven but meaner. If a railroad ran through the town, Herod would probably tie a woman to the tracks while wearing a cape.

Cort used to ride with Herod, but he realized the error of his ways and found God. Then Herod found him, and forced him to duel against his will. But as a preacher he can't kill. How can a pacificst win a gunfight? It's an interesting question and it's nice to see that while the movie offers an answer, it is not a simple or cute one.

The movie is directed by Sam Raimi, who applies his trademark frenetic camerawork to the Western. It is beautifully suited to the material, since the gunfights are about intense moments of stillness that culminate in explosions of violence, and Raimi's littany of snap zooms and trucks and rack focuses all work to extend and accentuate those moments until they're agonizingly suspenseful. Stylistically, Raimi might never have made a tighter picture.

Unfortunately he's saddled (h'yuck) with a dead fish of a star. Sharon Stone's Lady is supposed to be the male version of The Man With No Name, and like Eastwood, Stone saunters into town with a bad attitude, a husky whisper, and a collection of witty rejoiners. But where Eastwood's stoic demeaner reflected the character's inner intensity, Stone goes for stoic and looks only apathetic. Eastwood's facade was mysterious; we could tell he was hiding something. Stone's facade hides nothing, not even the actress' lack of interest in the material. Mostly she seems bored, not consumed wth a thirst for vengeance. She spends most of the second act crying and in the third act she changes her hairstyle more than her facial expressions.

Gotta love the camerawork in those gunfights though, plus the great performances by the rest of the cast, including Crowe, Hackman, a very young Leonardo DiCaprio, Lance Henriksen, Pat Hingle, Tobin Bell, and Keith David. The climactic shootout is a literal and figurative blast too, and Crowe gets some great badass moments and a nice capper on his character. Stone rides off into the sunset, but he stays behind, with a new purpose and perhaps a good future. In other words, his character would have been the focus of the sequel. So doesn't that mean he should have been the focus of the original too???


Post a Comment

<< Home