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Trying to revive the Western may be a fool's errand. As revisionist historians will be happy to tell you, Manifest Destiny is as dead as John Wayne, and any hombre crazy enough to say otherwise will get the bellyful of hot lead he deserves.

The real problem is that while it's easy to dismiss the outdated cowboys-and-Indians and lone-rider-in-town formulas worked and reworked by everyone from John Ford to Sergio Leone, viable, dramatic alternatives have been rare indeed. Between McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Unforgiven, there's a huge stretch of prairie--and a killing breach of faith.

That leaves us with the occasional mutant Western struggling for life. Sam Raimi's The Quick and the Dead falls squarely into the category. For one thing, it's a Nineties gender-bender, featuring megababe Sharon Stone, of all people, done up in hat, chaps and suedes straight out of the Ralph Lauren Collection, with a six-gun planted on her hip and lots of old-fashioned revenge swimming around in her head. For another thing, the supposed mythic tone of the movie borders on delirium: The typical lawless hellhole of a town is called Redemption, the local dictator (Gene Hackman) is called Herod, and Kevin Conway plays a brothel owner called Eugene Dred. That's already pretty arch, but nothing like the gory, over-the-top fantasy of the thing, which Raimi has transplanted straight from his stylish horror movies--the Evil Dead series, Darkman and Army of Darkness, to name a few.

As always with Raimi, there are some tongue-in-cheek yuks in here (what else would you expect from a guy who works "dark" or "dead" into the title of every movie he shoots?), and the magiste-rial Mr. Hackman supplies his usual touch of class to a role echoing the villain he played in Unforgiven. Emerging star Leonardo DiCaprio plays The Kid, and the movie is sprinkled with character men--Woody Strode, Pat Hingle and Lance Henriksen among them. They do their best.

But Westerns are probably not Raimi's thing. Certainly, they aren't Stone's. If you can refrain from bursting out laughing every time she guns down a bad guy and pulls her hat over her eyes, you're doing better than most of us. It's like watching Jerry Lewis do it, or Marilyn Monroe: Just doesn't fit.

Meanwhile, writer Simon Moore has furnished Stone's vengeful Ellen with the usual back story--traumatic past, paralyzing demons, uncontrollable anger, all of which bubble to the surface when she enters the deadly quick-draw contest the evil Herod stages each year to weed out any new threats to his power. In the mood for a little feminist catharsis? As we suspect from the beginning, Ellen is the only gun around quick enough to wind up...well, not dead.

She's got her reasons to get even. You'll have yours to get to the parking lot as fast as possible--the witty Raimi style notwithstanding.

 
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