A look back at Sam Raimi’s high-octane, action-packed modern western spectacle The Quick and the Dead (1995).

Sam Raimi is a master of relentless high-octane cinema. In his early works, he hijacked the horror genre (Evil Dead), superhero films (Darkman), and even Sword & Sorcery flicks (Army of Darkness) to showcase his vision of kick-ass entertainment. Continuing in that vein, his venture into another classic genre, the Western, seemed only logical. Most 1990s Westerns were either dead-serious (Wyatt Earp, Dances with Wolves) or outright depressive affairs (Unforgiven), but in 1995 Raimi grabbed the template and upgraded it into the action-packed spectacle The Quick and the Dead.

The small frontier town of Redemption is the stage for the annual shooting contest that is organized by the tyrannical Herod (Gene Hackman). Several gunslingers arrive to show off their skills, among them the mysterious Ellen (Sharon Stone). Her reason to participate is not the prize money, and as the tournament becomes more and more deadly, her fate becomes intertwined with that of the priest Cort (Russell Crowe), and the cocky gun shop owner The Kid (Leonardo DiCaprio). The overarching plot is simple (a gun fighting tournament), but maestro Raimi takes everything that is exciting about Westerns and molds this sequence of showdowns into a crazy genre medley.

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The film has a stunning cinematography with images shot in a sunset color palette, mixing Leone-style close-ups and zooms with classic wide shots, and the characters casting long shadows onto the sand. The set design is astonishingly beautiful and atmospheric. Main street and building interiors never looked so good, same goes for the costumes and weapons. Everything is accompanied by an epic killer soundtrack from Alan Silvestri, so on the production side, things are pretty much as perfect as can be.

Raimi was also provided with a spectacular cast that gives it all! Sharon Stone is a certified bad-ass, who would make Clint Eastwood proud. Yet her character has a deep sense of empathy that is severely lacking in almost all famous Western heroes of the past. Ellen just being a woman already brings an interesting dynamic to this film, as she is pitted against an array of archetypal macho male characters, that are thoroughly confused and aggravated by a female shooter.

Gene Hackman’s Herod is a perfect villain, well-dressed, well-spoken, yet underneath this attire he is still the same disgusting scumbag he was when he roamed the country as a criminal. Russell Crowe as preacher with a dark past and Leonardo DiCaprio as Herod’s tormented bastard child complement the main cast. The script renders them all walking clichés on the surface, but each actor brings a surprising depth to their protagonists, and all of them deliver fantastic performances. The side characters are less nuanced (the convict, the pervert, the colonel etc.) and this is where Raimi puts the tongue-in-cheek humor and a chunk of awesome physical jokes (often related to someone’s demise).

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The film revolves around the duels of the contest, and Raimi makes each one of them a highlight. All these showdowns will have you bite your nails in excitement, with classic montages of twitchy trigger fingers, sweaty foreheads and piercing stares. When the action starts, the camera goes completely nuts, and almost becomes the central participant in the action sequences. Just as in the Evil Dead films, it is whirling around with ultrafast zooms and spins, odd angles galore, and projectiles flying in first-person view until they hit their pitiable target.

Raimi’s trademark comical bloody violence is also included. He makes no compromises here, with a whole slate of absurdly awesome and funny kills, including the ultimate see-through bullet hole. On top of that we get a couple of intense incidents in the saloon, and the partial annihilation of the beautiful Western city by some massive explosions marks the crowning end of the film.

With The Quick and The Dead, Sam Raimi showed his love and enthusiasm for film-making in every frame. It’s hard to overstate how awesome this movie is, one of the best modern Westerns to this day that transforms its decades-old template into cinematic perfection.