Sharon Stone, gunslinger 'Quick and the Dead' turns the actress into Clint Eastwood

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Now here's a high concept for a movie: Sharon Stone is Clint Eastwood.

It makes sense: Both have faces so lean, angular and epic they resemble the landscape photography of Ansel Adams, and both look good in leather.

And upon that sturdy rock is "The Quick and the Dead" built. It's a tale of the West, the West that was west not of St. Louis but of Rome back in the '60s when Eastwood quit shaving, strapped on an Uberti-replica Colt and made himself an international star in three movies from the outlaw genius Sergio Leone.

Despised by the mainstream critics of the time for their operatic flourishes, their gigantic close-ups of swarthy men with skin the texture of Navajo pottery and their rippling glissandos of electronic music, the spaghetti westerns were wildly popular and wildly influential. (Great American westerns such as "The Wild Bunch" simply would not exist without the pioneering work of Leone.)

Obviously one who saw and loved them was the young Sam Raimi, now grown (sort of) to manhood and the director of such hoots as "Darkman" and "The Evil Dead" series. In this film, he sets out to duplicate their recondite pleasures as well as several of their key moments. He's achieved a level of sublime silliness that's so goofy it's quite entertaining.

The movie has the overall feel of having been directed by a crew of extremely intelligent but mischievous, even cruel, 11-year-old boys; its preadolescence creeps into every frame, and its reigning aesthetic principle is straight from a lower primate's undeveloped cerebellum: "Wouldn't it be cool if . . . ?" That's all it is, one "Wouldn't it be cool if . . . ?" moment after another, each determined to top the one before, as delivered by state-of-the-art optical effects and an expensive cast that could probably mount a pretty good production of "King Lear" if it had to.

In the ramshackle town of Redemption, a jut-jawed, unshaven stranger rides in, under a broad hat that hoods the eyes, sheathed in dusty leathers and wearing a gleaming six-gun. No whiskers, though, because of course Sharon Stone doesn't need to shave.

She's come to Redemption to enter the famous, cynical Fast Draw contest, which is sponsored by the town boss and resident Nietzschean superman Herod (Gene Hackman, at his most moon-crazed). For reasons having very little to do with anything, Herod runs the shootouts on the model of the NCAA basketball tournament (single permanent elimination). Just like the NCAAs, all the little guys disappear in the first round, and we watch the seedings play out, as the actor with more lines always defeats the actor with fewer lines.

Four or five contestants are broadly sketched, the most amusing being the ever-dependable Lance Henrikson as a kind of Buffalo Bill from the anti-universe. He perishes a bit quickly for my taste. The ultimate semi-finalists are crosshatched with Oedipal craziness: in one pairing, Hackman vs. his son (Leonardo DiCaprio, who seems to be enjoying himself) and in the other, Stone vs. "the Preacher" (Aussie Russell Crowe), who is Hackman's figurative son. Of course, each has a back story and a secret agenda of revenge.

But the story's not the movie. The movie is the antic playfulness that Raimi brings to the materials; nothing is done straight up. Stone, for example, plays her role so deadpan you feel you could fry an egg on her forehead and she probably wouldn't notice, just as did the mighty Clint all those years back in "Un pugno di dollari". She's constantly willing herself not to act with anything except the great planes of her face. Meanwhile, Hackman carries on as if he'll consider it a serious career setback if the word "restraint" occurs in one single review of the movie; clearly he watched the great Gian Maria Volante's scenery-chewing performance in the same pasta-rich classic.

But it's directing the camera rather than the actors where Raimi seems to have the most fun; he rides it like a bronco, and sometimes it throws him, and sometimes he gets it saddled. He'll try anything twice, and most things he tries three times. Technically, the movie is an endless trick bag, with zooming lenses, twisting angles, optical matting, gothic set design, swirling dust and great explosions. It's great fun if your chronological or mental age is 11, and it manages to be simultaneously buono, brutto and cattivo.

"The Quick and the Dead"

Starring Sharon Stone and Gene Hackman

Directed by Sam Raimi

Released by TriStar

Rated R (violence; sexual violence)

***

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