The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Take a Hard Ride

Time for a little genre crossover today, one I love, one I'm fascinated by if I don't really like. The love genre? The spaghetti western. The disappointing fascination? Blaxploitation. Both genres were fan friendly flicks that weren't going to rewrite film, but dammit, they were going to be entertaining in a low budget fashion. Today's combo flick? That's 1975's Take a Hard Ride.

Having helped deliver a herd of cattle to market, a cowboy named Pike (Jim Brown) finds himself in a sticky spot. The rancher in charge of the herd dies soon after selling his cattle, begging Pike to return the money to his wife back at their ranch in northern Mexico. It's a hefty sum -- some $86,000 -- but Pike is a man of his word and intends to deliver the money. He begins to ride south toward Mexico, picking up some help in the form of shifty gambler, Tyree (Fred Williamson), and a mute tracker raised by Indians, Kashtok (Jim Kelly). The news of Pike's mission has spread like wildfire though, and anyone who can heft a gun is on their trail, all of them hoping to get their hands on that lucrative pile of money. One seems more dangerous than the others, a renegade bounty hunter named Kiefer (Lee Van Cleef), and he's not going to make this easy for Pike. Can the cowboy keep his word and get to Mexico safely?

What an interesting premise. This 1975 western had American and Italian backing so it's not a straight spaghetti western, but the down and dirty feel is still there. Director Antonio Margheriti shot his movie in the Canary Islands, giving 'Ride' a very distinct, unique look. No familiar locations here from countless other spaghetti westerns! The score leans more toward the American side and feels out of place at times. As a whole, the idea is pretty cool. You don't see a lot of African American actors starring in a western, much less three of them with some solid star power and name recognition. Throw three black actors into a spaghetti western formula and let things fall where they may. Now all that said....the idea is pretty good. What about the execution?

It falls short, but I'm gonna cover some positives first. The biggest positive is pretty easy to spot, and that's the cast, especially the leads. In Brown, Williamson and martial artist turned star Kelly, 'Ride' offers three of the biggest stars of the blaxploitation, three stars who had worked together a year before in 1974's Three the Hard Way. The cowboy, the gambler and the tracker are three archetypal characters in the western genre, and the trio has some fun with the roles. Brown is solid and not flashy, the quiet cowboy who believes in doing the right thing, even if that decision could prove deadly. Williamson gets the showiest part as Tyree, the gambler, a well-dressed, back-stabbing dandy who has no qualms about killing to get his hands on some money. In the coolest part, Kelly is mostly presence, his mute tracker killing quickly, efficiently and in brutal fashion at times.

Some cool characters for sure, and they look to be having a lot of fun throughout. I especially liked the dynamic between Brown's Pike and Williamson's Tyree, the duo reminding me some of Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster in the very important 1954 western, Vera Cruz. These are two polar opposites, and that idea plays well. Pike wants to return the money no matter what, agreeing to let Tyree to tag along because an extra gun on the trail is never a bad thing. Oh, by the way, Tyree tells Pike he intends to kill him once they reach the end of the trail. Fun, huh? They have an excellent chemistry as two guys who aren't hiding anything. They're just waiting for their showdown somewhere down the trail. Also, that Lee Van Cleef guy is around too. He's awesome as always if underused. His presence is intimidating whether he's on-screen or not, a menacing gunman ready to dispatch whoever stands in his way.

Now, about that whole execution thing. I loved the premise of the movie, combining two hugely popular genres. The execution is a different story. It struggles to find a tone, juggling squib-heavy violence with buddy humor, and the blaxploitation's love of everything....well, how do I say this? Hatred of white people? The supporting characters are pretty cut and dry whether it's evil or stupid or both. Catherine Spaak plays Catherine, a widow on the trail with our heroes, prompting Tyree to say "Two black men, an Indian and a white woman." Laughs ensue! Barry Sullivan plays a law officer who puts away his badge to go after the money while Harry Carey Jr. and Robert Donner play two ignorant, bumbling cowboys doing the same. There's also some Johnny Rebs wanting to continue the Civil War, a greedy Mexican bandit, a cute Mexican boy, and two black guys on the trail who bitch and moan like a married couple. Talk about broad strokes.

With a 103-minute running time, things drifted too much for my liking. We get riding/talking scenes, brief shootout, campfire scene and then repeat. As well, the ending seems like one big old cop-out on numerous levels. Things build and build to a showdown, a proper shootout...and we don't get it. Now it may seem like I'm being overly critical, but I did enjoy this movie, just not as much as I would have liked. Still worth watching though, especially for western and blaxploitation fans alike. Even Dana Andrews makes a quick appearance early on!

Take a Hard Ride (1975): ** 1/2 /****

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