Even before "Spider-Man" (2002), director Sam Raimi's fascination with comic books spilled over into his filmmaking. After eight horror-fantasy outings he took a screenplay by Simon Moore and turned it into a revisionist western that incorporates the same kind of obtuse angles and rapid, twisting zooms that bring the Spidey movies to life. Add deadpan character direction and the result is a highly stylized western rendered in comic-book style that's a visual, auteurist delight. Unfortunately, the screenplay itself isn't nearly as interesting.
The story, which is not based on the well-known 1973 Louis L'Amour pulp novel, features characters that are such one-dimensional types that it cries out for a comic-style treatment. Even at that, we usually get a little more back story for comic book characters--not for the hero, mind you, because western heroes especially depend on the sanctity of their mysterious past. But we at least usually have a fuller sense of where the villains came from or how the villains came to be in power and at least one subplot involving townspeople. That doesn't happen here until it's almost too late, and so the wafer-thin characters begin to wear even thinner as the movie progresses, because there's nothing else to support Raimi's interesting style. DVD Town's Dean Winkelspecht liked this 1995 film more than I did.
"The Quick and the Dead" stars Sharon Stone as "The Lady," a longcoat-wearing ball-buster who has all the trademarks of the typical western hero. She's itinerant, she's a loner, she's skilled with a gun, she's a person of few words, she plays her cards close to the vest, and she doesn't rattle. Eventually we find out her story, but another main character remains a mystery, and that diminishes rather than enhances our enjoyment of the film.
Gene Hackman plays the heavy, a classic western town boss named Herod who goes all biblical on the town's ass, his henchmen a plague and an annual contest he holds a sadistic game he plays to amuse himself. If you know your Bible, you may remember that Herod was a Hebrew king whom Matthew tells us was responsible for ordering the massacre of innocents--including, historians add, members of his own family. This Herod does the same thing, bullying people into participating in a single-elimination High Noon Shootout tournament, complete with chalk board and pairings. But see, that's something I don't get. First we're told that it's all about challenges and you can't refuse challenges, then we end up getting pairings for people who didn't challenge anyone. I guess when you run the town like a king and you have thugs with rifles trained on the citizenry at all times you can pretty much make up your own rules.
"The Quick and the Dead" is rated R for "western violence," but so much of that violence is stylized. One of the most interesting shots shows a gunfighter looking at his shadow on the ground and seeing daylight poking through in one spot, then we see his body and a gap that's almost comically big.
In a way, the plot of "The Quick and the Dead" reminds me of the Shirley Jackson short story, "The Lottery," where a single annual ritual that's traumatic for the town is described in detail. Here, the only other implied back story involves a former gunman-turned-pacifist named Preacher (Russell Crowe), who's dragged into town in handcuffs and held prisoner except when he's released to fight a showdown. Instinct keeps him in the game, though he keeps saying he refuses to fight. But it would be nice to know a little more about his character so we can fully appreciate his situation.
As Dean observed in his review, every character is a type. A very young Leonardo DiCaprio plays a Billy the Kid type (and he's called The Kid); Pat Hingle plays the townsman he always does; Lance Henriksen is the Wild West Show gambler-gunslinger who's all pearl-handled flash; Keith David is the former Army soldier; Woody Strode (in his last film) is the black Charlie Moonlight; Jonothon Gill is Spotted Horse, the token Indian gunslinger; and Gary Sinise plays the marshal. There isn't an original bone in any of their bodies, but of course that's the point. The problem is that we're unable to move beyond the stylized characters because of a limited script. A little more complexity would have been most welcome-though one suspects that the presence of a blind boy (Jerry Swindall) wearing dark glasses is intended as a commentary of sorts. We're just not sure what his character is supposed to be commenting on. Really, for a life-or-death tournament there's really not much in the way of suspense. You know which characters are going to be around for the semi-finals, and so everything up until then is as predictable in its attrition-rate as those teen thrillers shot on the cheap.
Now, if all of that sounds like one big complaint, let me say that the actors do a nice job of following Raimi's tonal vision for the film, and Stone fits into her role with surprising ease. Raimi's scenic design and set decoration, along with his comic-book direction of the actors--with brief lines drawn out so we can savor the visuals, as we do with a comic-book page--make for some pretty compelling watching, even if there's little information to process. Raimi runs with mostly closed-frames to suggest confinement, and that too makes the film play more tightly in our imaginations, where it's difficult even to envision a West filled with wide-open spaces beyond the purgatorial way station that this town begins to feel like. In the end, the contest-as-plot is just a little too one-dimensional . . . even for a two-dimensional medium.
Though this is mastered in High Definition, from the opening title sequence there's a fair amount of grain in the exterior backgrounds, especially the sky shots. The colors are true-looking and the skin-tones accurate, but it will probably take the average Blu-ray lover five or 10 minutes into the film before the grain becomes less noticeable. In close-ups you can appreciate a nice amount of detail, and black levels seem sufficient. There were a few frames where I noticed ghosts, but overall the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer seems to be a decent one. The thing of it is, a catalog title like "The Searchers" in Blu-ray still blows this away. "The Quick and the Dead" is presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
The audio is also nothing special. For a movie that's dependent on creating an atmosphere, I expected more involvement from the rear speakers. But when we do get action from the effects speakers, they draw attention to themselves and seem artificially separated and more distant from where you'd imagine the source of the sound to be in relation to the film. There's also not much in the way of sonic resonance. Everything feels "okay" rather than "great." The bass could have more kick to it, and the high notes could ring a little brighter. Sony went with an English or French Dolby TrueHD 5.1, and while I never saw this in theaters or on DVD, I have to say that the results here are unimpressive. Subtitles are in English, English SDH, and French.
If you have a Profile 2.0 player you can access the film's only bonus feature: movieIQ, which is a real-time pop-up trivia track that covers approximately 40 percent of the frame. But maybe I don't understand the concept of "real time" or "live." I mean, is Sam Raimi sitting by his computer waiting for people to watch the film and pull down the "cast" tab to watch his bio? Is he updating his resume as we watch? And does the information update on a Thursday differently from when you watched it earlier on a Monday? If not, then how is this "real-time" or "live"? I don't get it, and I don't mind admitting so. It just strikes me as yet another asinine attempt to make BD-Live work, when the whole idea of people watching and being connected to their movies is still just an idea that no one has found a really practical application for yet. I really wish the studios would do some marketing research and actually find out how many people who buy the Blu-ray actually watch it while being connected to the Internet? If it's a small percentage, as I suspect it is, then why continue to beat this still-born horse?
Sam Raimi does a lot of interesting things in "The Quick and the Dead" and Sharon Stone plays a convincing female gunfighter, but the one-horse plot with no subplots to generate additional interest becomes a drag.