I suppose that The Quick and the Dead should be commended for at the very least trying something different in a genre that often feel stale. Westerns often seem to fall into the same cliches over and over again, rarely seeing a lot of new developments. While The Quick and the Dead certainly falls into some cliches, it did try something new. Although it feels like a gimmick, and is, taking the Mexican standoff portion of these films and trying to craft an entire film around them is at least ambitious.
There’s a problem that stems directly from doing this though, and this problem is ultimately this film’s downfall. The reason that Mexican standoffs are generally at the end of the film is because that’s the way they get the audience to care about what will happen. They build tension because we’ve grown to care about one, or often both, of these characters, and we are on our toes about who is going to live. The entire plot of The Quick and the Dead is based around a tournament that has a Mexican standoff every day, with the winner of this competition getting money as a reward.
But this means that we don’t get an entire film to develop the characters, and it means that when characters take to the battlefield, we have no reason to care beyond the “I wonder who is going to win” mentality. The ones that occur near the end of the film don’t suffer from this problem as much, although this movie is lacking in character development, so the problem remains. Another problem also crops up, because by the time we’ve seen people involved in these types of fights multiple times already, we’ve grown tired of them and recognized that they are only a gimmick.
A tournament is what we get, however, and it’s before the competition begins that we meet our main characters. From what I can gather, our main good guy is Ellen (Sharon Stone) who wanders into this town, seemingly only after money. She must be our lead because we see flashbacks of her father being killed. The main bad guy is John Herod (Gene Hackman), who collects 50% of the townspeople’s money, and is therefore the bad guy. But the town runs, so I don’t really see what the big deal is.
There are two other characters who we’re told we should watch. Russell Crowe plays a character who may or may not be a priest, depending on who you talk to, while Leonardo DiCaprio plays “The Kid”, a character who insists that he’s Herod’s son, although Herod claims the opposite. There’s no real conclusion to that story, so you’ll have to make your own judgments on this one, assuming you do decide to watch this.
If you’re guessing right now that these are the four people who will make it to the semi-final round of the tournament, give yourself a cookie. The story is as basic as I’ve described, save for the flashbacks that Ellen continuously has, which only serve to give her a slight bit more motivation for being in the tournament, other than wanting money. But the full flashback isn’t revealed until the end, and left me feeling mixed about if she had a just cause showing up in the first place.
That is about as much emotion as I felt during The Quick and the Dead, and it’s in that flashback where the most emotion is shed by a character too. In this case, a child actor playing a young Ellen ends up turning in the best performance, which felt really odd. Sharon Stone doesn’t show a single hint of emotion throughout the film, answering everything coldly and never speaking unless spoken to first. Our bad guy doesn’t really seem all that evil, the priest doesn’t have any personality, and The Kid is a stereotype. But this child actor actually showed that Ellen can feel things, or maybe why she went into such an isolation in the first place.
But this doesn’t explain why the characters can’t grow as the tournament progresses. Sure, we learn more about them, but they stay the same, meaning that any lessons they should learn aren’t taken in, and they remain just as dull as they were to begin, only we’re now sure that they’re dull. I have a feeling that if I were to ever watch this movie again, it would be worse because I’d have already discovered all I could about these characters, and that knowing how poorly developed they are would lessen my experience and bore me even more than this first viewing did.
It’s not like the Mexican standoffs are even that interesting. The drama usually comes from characters standing there, facing one another, trying to determine when the other will make a move. Here, they have to wait for a clock to strike 12, which reduces a lot of the tension that is already at critically low levels. These types of standoffs only really work with well-developed characters who each have a good enough chance to win, but this film doesn’t have either.
Basing an entire film around what is arguably the most enjoyable part of Western films seemed like a good idea on paper, but fails because it doesn’t take into account what makes Mexican standoffs so fun in the first place. Since it failed to give us proper tension, there is little keeping us watching this film, apart from seeing who will eventually win the tournament. The Quick and the Dead sidesteps some Western cliches, but falls victim to others while showing off poor execution on parts that needed to be pitch-perfect.