“Unforgiven” (1992)
It seems that one’s appreciation for “Unforgiven” largely depends on when you saw it. The hype surrounding the film will serve to disappoint anyone who catches up with it later, but it doesn’t diminish the fact that the film is a contemporary oater and revenge flick of the highest order. The film follows aged, widowed outlaw William Munny, a notorious gunslinger who is now spending his autumn years raising his two kids on a pig farm. One day he receives an offer from a young whippersnapper, The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett; whatever happened to that guy?) to join him to collect on a bounty put up by a group of prostitutes after one of their own was cut up by a cowboy. Munny initially turns him down, but then reconsiders, locates his old partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) and together with the trigger happy Schofield Kid, set out do the job. But the gang soon run afoul of Sheriff Little Bill (Gene Hackman) who doesn’t allow guns or assassins in his town. The brilliance of “Unforgiven” lies in the script by David Webb Peoples, who puts his hero at a moral crossroads: engaging in the same reckless, wanton violence of his youth that he now regrets, but doing so because it’s the only way to set things right. This is a western that lingers on the consequences of pulling the trigger and taking a man's life (a sequence set in a canyon where Munny and Logan grow disgusted while watching one of their targets suffer is an eye-opener). And while the moral complexity is wiped away thanks to a guns blazing climax that doesn’t quite jibe with the film’s undertones, Eastwood has created a contemporary classic, rich in character and atmosphere with an almost Sam Peckinpah-esque grim consideration that sometimes violence is the only answer a man has. [B+]

“The Quick & the Dead” (1995)
Sam Raimi took an “all killer, no filler” approach to his lone western, the streamlined tale of an annual gun-slinging competition in the ominously named town of Redemption, and the lone woman (a badly miscast Sharon Stone) brave enough to enter. The movie is high on sizzle, both with its who’s-who line-up of character actors in supporting roles (including Keith David and Lance Henriksen, as well as soon-to-be superstars Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe) and its emphasis on visual style over narrative coherence. That said, it’s all really, really fucking cool, especially when Gene Hackman is on screen, devouring scenery as the corrupt sheriff who, many years prior, killed Stone’s father (played in a fleeting cameo by Lt. Dan himself, Gary Sinise). [B]

“El Topo” (1970)
Alejandro Jodorowsky wrote, directed and starred in this trippy western (reportedly John Lennon’s favorite movie), as a gunslinger in a quest to become the west’s finest killer. In the process, he guns down a series of memorable avatars of violence, only to be betrayed by his own lust for power, reborn in a small town as a pacifist circus performer, unaware that his now-grown son seeks revenge for his abandonment. “El Topo” is a surrealist spaghetti western that takes aim at the hypocrisies of violence and religion, with unforgettable sequences that showcase a filmmaker in Jodorowsky that, with his second picture, was definitely one to watch. A must-see for anyone who likes their westerns experimental and off the beaten path. [A]

“Forty Guns” (1957)
Beloved by the French New Wave much like Nicholas Ray, Sam Fuller is best known for Criterion-approved works about damaged freaks like “Shock Corridor,” “Naked Kiss” and “Pickup on South Street,” but his 1957 CinemaScope-shot western starring Barbara Stanwyck, Barry Sullivan and Gene Barry is not too shabby either. While it’s his second western after “I Shot Jesse James” (“Baron of Arizona”is technically more of a land-owning drama), we still prefer this picture, which chronicles the life of a tyrannical rancher (the great Barbara Stanwyck, natch) who rules an Arizona county with her private posse of hired guns. An avowedly peaceful U.S. Marshall (Sullivan) who has never fired his gun arrives to restore order to the local town, but while he’s setting things straight and messing things up for the despotic queen, she starts falling for him. Things get ugly and complicated later on (a bride actually gets shot in the head during a wedding ceremony for christ’s sake!), so while slightly uneventful in its first half, “Forty Guns” becomes more engaging as the film progresses. And Fuller makes the most of his widescreen format, shooting wonderful close-ups and impressing every auteur in France with one of the longest tracking shots in history up until that point. [B]