Sam Raimi has returned to the genre that made him one of the most popular filmmakers of the early 2000s, comic book movies. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is being positioned by Disney and Marvel Studios as a turning point in the MCU, and it makes sense they would recruit one of the most influential superhero movie directors of all time for it. Along with Peter Jackson and Tim Burton, there is probably no director alive that has done as much to bring genre movies into widespread respectability. Of course, as real Raimi-heads (as we call ourselves) know, the filmmaker originally started out making his name in an entirely different, also critically-derided genre, horror. But Raimi struggled to find his footing in Hollywood before Spider-Man came calling. The 1990s were essentially Sam Raimi wildly swinging to find something that worked, and his weirdest and most diverse films come from that period. The most critically controversial of them all came in 1995 with his would-be blockbuster The Quick and the Dead, which is streaming on Netflix as of May 1.
Why is The Quick and the Dead one of Sam Raimi’s weirdest and most controversial movies? After all, this is a filmmaker that had his high school buddy Bruce Campbell strap a chainsaw onto a stump of a hand and fight the living dead in three different (but kind of the same) movies. The Quick and the Dead has not stopped polarizing critics since it was first released and it is unlikely to anytime soon. The Sharon Stone revisionist Western lands squarely in the middle of Raimi’s career and has all of his unrestrained goofiness and love of dynamic cinematic technique but also does not have the inherent excuse of being based on funny books to excuse it. It has his darkness and gallows humor, but also his slapstick jokes and crazy visuals. At the time of its release, critics were mixed on the film; no one could quite decide if this movie was Sam Raimi doing a genre exercise, mocking the conventions of Westerns, trying and failing to imitate them, trying and succeeding, or just goofing around.
While Sam Raimi had not officially gone into the realm of comic book adaptation by this point, The Quick and the Dead might as well be a movie of superheroes and villains. Sharon Stone stars as a (Wo)Man without a Name-type, known simply as The Lady. She winds up in an Old West town named Redemption, which is ruled with an iron hand by an outlaw named John Herod. The Biblical references keep going hard and fast, but this is not a subtle movie. This is a movie in which the desolate town hosts a quick-draw contest for a treasure chest full of money, with the quickest gunslinger taking all and the slow being, well, dead. We see a whole slew of colorful characters like Lance Henriksen’s leather-clad, boastful Ace Hanlon and Keith David as the pipe-smoking gun for hire Sergeant Clay Cantrell. But the movie belongs to The Lady, Herod, a former outlaw turned pacifist preacher named Cort (Russell Crowe in his first American role), and a loudmouthed, inhumanly fast junior gun salesman called The Kid (Leonardo DiCaprio just pre-Titanic).
Just a few years after Gene Hackman won an Academy Award for playing the brutal, strangely human overlord of a desolate Western town in Unforgiven, Sam Raimi has him play a very similar role. But where his “Little” Bill Daggett in Clint Eastwood’s movie was a man molded into violence and tyranny by the need to create some kind of order, Hackman’s John Herod is chaos. He changes to rules of the competition as he suits, he takes pleasure out of his preternatural gift with guns and in slaughter. But it also shows him as a lonely and pathetic figure. It is Sam Raimi’s particular gift for balance that a movie in which a cackling Gene Hackman shoots a perfect hole through a man’s head so you can see the horizon through it also takes time to show him as a sad, worried man sitting alone in an empty house.
The Quick and the Dead did not do Sam Raimi’s career any favors. The movie bombed despite the presence (and producer role) of a white-hot star of the decade, Sharon Stone, and up and comers like Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio. It sank like a stone at the box office and only recently has begun to be re-evaluated for the cartoonish yet grim and violent movie that only Raimi could make. He would cycle on for a few more odd exercises like a neo-noir with Billy Bob Thornton and a baseball movie with Kevin Costner before exploding into the mainstream. But The Quick and the Dead remains one of Sam Raimi’s most unique and confounding films.