'The Quick and the Dead' Takes Westerns Into Postmodern Era

In the tradition of Sergio Leone, a dark poetic look at the frontier

'The Quick and the Dead,'' about a sheriff who keeps order by holding nonstop shootouts in the town square, is the liveliest western I've seen in ages. But many moviegoers will be slow to see it, since the western genre has been more dead than quick at the box office in recent years.

True, an occasional horse opera becomes a hit with audiences. The acclaimed ''Unforgiven,'' the ambitious ''Dances With Wolves,'' and the dreadful ''Legends of the Fall'' come to mind.

''Wyatt Earp'' was a more typical case, though, falling off its horse despite a big-name director and an all-star cast. Once a Hollywood staple, the western genre was killed off in the 1970s and '80s by science fiction, which adapted its conventions to a more trendy, effects-oriented framework. The granddaddy of this change was ''Star Wars,'' which set its story not in the future but ''a long, long time ago.''

Playing their cards cleverly, the makers of ''The Quick and the Dead'' have plugged into all sorts of current fashions. Key roles in the story are played by a no-nonsense woman, a fresh-faced youngster, and a weather-beaten old man -- no sexism or ageism here -- supported by a cast of ethnically diverse characters (liberals can smile) treated irreverently enough (conservatives can also smile) for the mixture to seem reasonably uncalculated.

Equally to the point, director Sam Raimi has juiced up the action with the energetic style he developed in the sardonic horror movies that launched his career. To my eye, Raimi shockers like ''Darkman'' and ''The Evil Dead'' are more tricky than scary, using an onslaught of gimmicks to mask an absence of thought and feeling. His new western also has plenty of self-conscious devices, from superswift editing to the year's weirdest camera angles. But what makes them more than ostentatious inside jokes is t he respect he shows for the conventions he affectionately parodies.

AT once an old-fashioned adventure and a postmodern pastiche, ''The Quick and the Dead'' walks a slim tightrope with impressive skill and humor. Its main reference point is the work of Sergio Leone, the Italian maestro whose ''spaghetti westerns'' reinvigorated the genre during its last major phase about 30 years ago. Raimi draws on pictures like ''The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly'' and ''Once Upon a Time in the West'' as freely as George Lucas drew on John Ford's classic ''The Searchers'' in his ''Star Wars'' scenario, rediscovering the dark poetry Leone found in the anarchic stretches of an untamed frontier.

None of this means ''The Quick and the Dead'' has the operatic sweep of a Leone masterpiece. Simon Moore's screenplay is repetitious, and while Raimi tries to make this a virtue, the story fades before its 103 minutes are over.

Touches of pretentiousness also creep into the otherwise breezy atmosphere, starting with the fact that Redemption is the name of the Arizona town where the picture takes place. References to redemption are now in vogue, from the title of ''The Shawshank Redemption'' to the license plate reading ''grace'' in a ''Pulp Fiction'' episode. A philosophical filmmaker like Paul Schrader can get away with this, but I'm not the first critic to wonder if schlockmeisters like Stephen King and Quentin Tarantino rea lly spend their time pondering the theme of salvation. Raimi's movie would seem more sincere if Shoot-'Em-Up or Mow-'Em-Down were the setting for its explosive action.

Gene Hackman brings his usual professionalism to the sadistic sheriff who forces his citizens into showdowns they'd rather do without. Sharon Stone is strong as a vengeful woman who rides into town, and Leonardo DiCaprio makes a solid impression as a fledgling gunfighter, although he doesn't find the amazing originality he brought to ''What's Eating Gilbert Grape'' a couple of years back. Roberts Blossom, Pat Hingle, Gary Sinise, and the late, great Woody Strode are standouts in the supporting cast.

Dante Spinotti did the eye-dazzling cinematography, and Pietro Scalia gets credit for the hyperactive editing. Alan Silvestri composed the score, which has a moody charm reminiscent of Ennio Morricone's memorable music for various Leone epics. It couldn't be more appropriate.

*Rated R; contains vulgar language and a great deal of violence, but done in a cartoonish way that reduces its impact.

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