Sergio Corbucci has to be the really cool uncle in the family. He directed some of the coolest and most entertaining westerns to come out of the genre, everything from Django to The Great Silence, Hellbenders to Navajo Joe. Thanks to the Music Box Theatre on the northside of Chicago showcasing spaghetti westerns all summer, I was able to catch up with 1968's The Mercenary.
It's the 1910s and the Mexican Revolution is raging all over the country. Among those fighting is a peon turned bandit, Paco (Tony Musante), who dreams of fighting back against authority, doing something his father was never able to do. Leading a bloody uprising at the silver mine he works at, Paco gets his chance, earning himself a small group of followers. They soon meet Kowalski (Franco Nero), a Polish gun-for-hire who saves himself from a nasty death by agreeing to work with Paco and his men...for a price. Kowalski gives them weapons, ammunition and equipment, more importantly leading them with tactics and strategy. From town to town they attack the government troops, Paco gaining national notoriety while Kowalski earns more and more money. Their fame and notoriety has come at a price with the Mexican army hunting them down, including a dandy of a hired gun, Curly (Jack Palance). All their paths seemed destined to cross.
Over a span of just five years (1966-1970), Corbucci directed six different spaghetti westerns that are considered must-see flicks in the genre, and this is certainly one of them. Where Leone has a reputation of a master filmmaker, Corbucci doesn't have the same pull. His efforts -- while highly entertaining, sometimes highly controversial/weird -- are more straightforward. The movies have more of a rogue, renegade quality that at times feels like its a blood and guts amateur quality. The camera is off-center, cuts and edits are rough to say the least. The counter is that they're usually a hell of a lot of fun. Some like Django are shocking in their violence, others like The Great Silence are shocking but in terms of an almost romantically doomed storyline. Somewhere in between? The Mercenary, just an entertaining flick all around.
'Mercenary' comes from a subgenre dubbed 'the Zapata western' that dealt with the Mexican Revolution, usually focusing on political issues in one way or another. In that sense, it deals with a lot of familiar characters and themes. Nero's Kowalski is the almost necessary outsider, the gunrunner, the mercenary, the hired gun, any variation of American and/or foreign adventurers/profiteers who find themselves in Mexico with a chance to make money. Musante's Paco is the illiterate peon who wants more, who doesn't want to be held down. If there's some fame and riches in the process for him, so be it. Then there's Palance's Curly, the sadistically unique villain that every good western needs. The politics are there but not too heavy-handed, Kowalski and Paco talking about what they hope to achieve, what they can achieve, about what the people should get/want and what the government actually provides.
So, yes, there is politics, but the focus here is far more on the really cool characters and the really cool action. The similarities are obvious in the casting to Leone's Good, Bad and Ugly, assembling a trio of antiheroes -- one worse than the others -- and it works here perfectly too. Nero as Kowalski is a movie-stealer, his Polish mercenary who's out for money, riches and adventure and willing to sell his services to the highest bidder. It's the visual too, his long duster, his tight-fitting vest and tailored shirts, his flat brim hat, his Fu Manchu mustache and long sideburns, even a little guyliner for good measure. Kowalski is smooth, smoother and smoothest, letting absolutely nothing rattle him. It's that confidence that oozes out in the roll, the little touches Nero brings to the part, like striking matches on anything and everything; a woman's breast, a dead man's boot as he hangs from a noose, a rival's gunbelt among others. It is a great leading part, and another great part from the always criminally cool Franco Nero.
Two years later, Corbucci would basically remake this movie with 1970's Companeros. Nero and Palance would return in similar roles with Tomas Milian replacing Musante. While Musante has a good chemistry with Nero and he's very watchable, it just isn't a great part. He gets lost in the shuffle at times, his idealistically fun yet clueless revolutionary not quite living up to expectations. Musante also gets the love interest, Giovanni Ralli as Columba, the Mexican woman caught up in his revolutionary band. And then there's Palance as Curly. Spaghetti westerns had gay characters all over the place, but it's a scream to watch at times. Curly is the definition of a gay caballero, his immaculately coiffed hair, flowers in his jacket lapels, his almost-dainty mannerisms, and adding a nice touch just because, crossing himself over his victims and as he passes crucifixes and churches. An underused part, but a great villain just the same.
Also look for familiar spaghetti western faces Lorenzo Robledo, Raf Baldassarre and plenty of others rounding out the supporting cast. The focus is most definitely on Nero, Musante, Palance and Ralli as the story develops. Having worked with Corbucci in 1966's Django, Eduardo Fajardo returns here as Col. Garcia, the Mexican officer at the head of the regular army column always in pursuit of Kowalski, Paco and his band. And because it'd be criminal to not mention him, Ennio Morricone (working with Bruno Nicolai) turns in another memorable score, this one featuring three main themes, all of them gems. Give it a listen HERE.
Onto the action! Onto the gunfights! There are plenty here, the episodic story of Kowalski and Paco working together well to provide plenty of shootouts, both on a small scale and the large. When it is on-screen, the action is big and chaotic, explosions and shootouts, featuring machine guns, cannons and even an airplane attack late. Corbucci adds a nice touch, hinting at a coming attack at one point, but only lets us hear about its bloody details later. The best though is in the Leone mold, a shootout in an empty bull ring, Kowalski serving as the ringmaster. The buildup is great, the payoff even better. Now the fact that the movie goes on for another 15 unnecessary minutes is an issue, but a minor complaint. A spaghetti western with a great cast and fun action, just a lot of fun to watch.
The Mercenary (1968): ***/****