Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Quick and the Dead

You gotta hand it to Sharon Stone. Right after Basic Instinct, she could have done any movie she wanted. And so she said, "Make a Clint Eastwood spaghetti western starring me as The Man With No Name and  directed by the guy who did Evil Dead." Ballsy. A flop, but ballsy. And that's why i have a soft spot for The Quick and the Dead: It's what i would have done if i were in her position.
Another thing we gotta hand to La Stone and this is something the money men could have believed in if they could have forseen it: For The Quick and the Dead, Stone insisted on Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe as her co-stars. Both were on the verge of megastardom: Leo two years from Titanic and Unca Russ five out from Gladiator. Of course, Stone's choices of leading man weren't always so ace: See Billy Baldwin and Sylvester Stallone....
So, it's the classic western setup: Small town terrorized by evil town-running dude and his gang of henchmen. Said evil town-running dude is played by Gene Hackman in a shocking piece of stunt casting. I mean, he never plays roles like that...
Anyway, HackMan -- in what i assume is an attempt to increase the local tourist trade -- hosts an annual gun battle. They've got brackets and everything. La Stone aka "The Lady" signs up, along with the usual western movie suspects: Hired gun, tubercular pistolero,Texas braggart, angry Native American, several drunks and the unwashed rapist. And here we also have DiCaprio as cocky sharpshooter "The Kid," aka HackMan's son, as well as Crowe aka "The Preacher," a former gunslinger who has seen the error of his ways.
Stone appears and immediately steals someone's gold, knocks down a saloon manager who says the only place she can get a room is at the whorehouse, tells a gambler to play with himself, tells the convict he needs a bath and is nice to the blind shoeshine boy. It is a world of ridiculous machismo and the men seem less disturbed by the fact that Stone might shoot them than that she is utterly unimpressed with their bullshit. Just stands there, mutely appraising your sorry ass and finding you seriously wanting.
When they won't let her in the contest, she manages to simultaneously show off her pistol skills and save Crowe from a barroom lynching, earning them both a place in the brackets. Did i mention that at one point, she smacks an obnoxious and abusive little boy in the face? Love. Huh.
Yet it's also clear  that Stone isn't quite the heartless killer she pretends to be and is, indeed, slightly overwhelmed by these cold-blooded faceoffs. There's some heavy-handed childhood flashback sequences but they only spell out what she intelligently hints at -- that her silent bravado often hides the fact that she is confused and somewhat frightened by what's going on. For example: In her first faceoff, she is initially nervous, then resolute, then shocked and then covers it all by sticking her tongue down DiCaprio's throat and running off to get shitfaced on cheap whiskey. This is actually pretty much how i lived my life in NYC in the 90s, actually...
More gunfights, more deaths, more threats greeted by mute disdain. Stone gets dressed up in ladydrag to have dinner with HackMan but inexplicably doesn't whack him when she has the chance. And she does a bit much moaning and crying and doubting, although at least she does it in private. In public, she follows the wise edict that when you don't know what to say or do, do and say nothing and let others ascribe profundity to it. (Again: What i would have done in her position.)  You can bet that unwashed rapist is gonna get his though....
As far as our co-stars, Crowe manages to carry of pacifist badass and you can imagine his agent's phone ringing off the damn hook afterward -- hey, this was the 90s, phones still had hooks and Russel Crowe was still hot. Interestingly, there apparently was a scene where he gets in on with Stone that didn't make the final cut. (I can see Stone knowing damn well that it wouldn't, but insisting on shooting it anyway. I'm surprised she even had them put film in the camera.) DiCaprio is annoying but, well, he's supposed to be.
(I have contemplated how much less DiCaprio we'd have to deal with if River Phoenix hadn't died. Both were Oscar-nominated at an early age, but Phoenix was the better actor. And i think of his Gatsby and it makes me sad: Few actors have had the gift for evoking the longing of the outsider that River Phoenix did and i believe his Gatsby would have been the rare filmic portrayal that actually adds something to the literary character. Especially if they'd gotten it fully right and had Charlize Theron as Daisy. But i digress...)
 The main problem with The Quick and the Dead is that it's kind of hard for the movie to go anywhere. We're stuck with a series of high-noon gunfights building up to the inevitable faceoff between HackMan and La Stone. In the meanwhile, DiCaprio is arrogant, Crowe is noble, HackMan is a fucking dick and all the other archtypes do as is expected of them.
Sam Raimi's light-yet-violent touch shows up in the propensity for people having sunlight or smoke or small shadowbox-like views seen through the bullet holes just put in them. But The Quick and the Dead could stand a bit more of his trademark goofiness. (Although Crowe does throw down some rather Ash in Evil Dead moves in the climactic gunfight.)
 Still, it's an entertaining film with a bit of humor, a few good performances and a nice twist on the genre. Johnny Guitar, Cat Ballou and Westward the Women were all feminine takes on the western, but they significantly change western conventions to accommodate the ladies: With Freudian catfighting,with the delicate-female-turned-tough plotline, with a sisterhood road movie. But in The Quick and the Dead, it's straight up classic western tropes except for the fact that it changes the gender of the mysterious stranger set on vengeance. Sometimes the small changes are the most radical of all...

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