The original John Wick, starring Keanu Reeves as a retired assassin roused to revenge in a very bloody campaign, was a deliciously entertaining old school action film with impressive action choreography and physical stunts and one stunning set piece after another. (John Wick is reviewed on Stream On Demand here.)
John Wick Chapter 2 (2017) may or may not have been planned from the outset but it seems inevitable, and not just because the first was film was the stealth action hit of 2014. There’s a whole mythology of a criminal subculture, an elaborate fantasy underworld of hitmen and gangsters just begging to be explored, laid out in that first film. Once John Wick reenters the world he had escaped all those years ago there’s no way he can just drop back out. This is not that kind of fantasy.
Man, Pride and Vengeance (Blue Underground, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) – There were hundreds of spaghetti westerns produced by Italian studios in the sixties and early seventies. Only a small percentage of them were particularly good, and fewer still genuinely great. You’d think we’d be running out of discoveries by now but Man, Pride and Vengeance (1967), from director Luigi Bazzoni and star Franco Nero, is a respectable find. Based on the novel Carmen by Prosper Merimee, with Nero as the loyal, straight-arrow soldier José demoted after he’s tricked by gypsy hellion Carmen (Tina Aumont), it’s the rare spaghetti western that is actually set in Spain, where it was shot.
In this take, José is has no fiancée to betray, which perhaps makes him more susceptible to Carmen’s flirtations, and Nero plays him as an affable career man whose equilibrium is completely upset by the surge of emotions—lust, rage, resentment, jealousy—that the wild free spirit brings out in him. Aumont makes a cheeky Carmen, not malicious so much as unapologetically mercenary and sexually independent but with a code of conduct that she follows faithfully. She pays her debts, which complicates José’s life more than he can handle. Soon he’s on the run from a murder charge and joins her criminal gang, where he meets her husband Garcia (Klaus Kinski), fresh out of prison and ready to take charge of the gang and take on anyone he sees as a threat. While José earns the nickname “Preacher” for his insistence on a disciplined plan and a non-violent execution of the stage robbery (both a moral and practical decision; murder brings out the soldiers in force), Garcia is like unstable dynamite pulled from the storage of a long prison sentence and ready to blow at the slightest nudge.
Things take a more savage turn when it leaves the city for the frontier, a dusty, desolate landscape of threatening hills, chalky trails, and sunbaked days that (along with Garcia’s taunting and baiting) eat at the gang as they hide out in primeval caves. But this isn’t about barbarous cutthroats picking off rivals. Bazzoni wrote the screenplay with Suso Cecchi d’Amico, one of the great screenwriters of Italian cinema (Bicycle Thieves, Miracle in Milan, Big Deal on Madonna Street, The Leopard, and many others), and they give the characters more complexity. These aren’t the bloodthirsty thugs who feed off of violence and chaos, merely folks born to this way of life, and they have their own moral codes and clan loyalties. In this Darwinian setting they provide an unexpected humanity and a contrast to José, whose own code is swamped by his emotional impulses outside of his military home. And best of all, Aumont’s Carmen is fascinating, a woman who pays her debts and honors her obligations, lives and loves as she chooses, and never apologizes for her choices. Aumont hasn’t the strength to give Carmen much depth but she does instill her with a lively spirit and an fierce way of taking life head on.
The film was also released under the title With Django Comes Death, just another of the scores of movies trying to cash in on the iconic hit. At least it stars the original Django himself, even if the sensibility is as far from the cold justice and pitiless violence of Django as can be.
The film debuts on Blu-ray and DVD in a new High Definition transfer from the original camera negative with both original Italian and English dub soundtracks and optional English, Italian, and French subtitles. Features commentary by Italian western experts C. Courtney Joyner and Henry C. Parke and the 28-minute interview featurette “Luigi, Vittorio & Franco,” featuring new interviews with Franco Nero and Vittorio Storaro (who was the film’s camera operator) talking about their lifelong friendship with one another and director Luigi Bazzoni, begun before any of them had experienced cinema success, and reuniting on this film to make good on their promise to one day all work together. It’s as touching as it is illuminating.
Compañeros (Blue Underground, Blu-ray) is an ironic title, but then as a spaghetti western—a genre steeped in mercenaries and con men and double crosses—it would have to be. Swedish gun runner Yodlaf (Franco Nero), in Mexico in the heat of the revolution to sell his weapons to the highest bidder, and hot-headed Mexican peasant turned revolutionary officer Vasco (Tomas Milian in a beret that evokes Che Guevara) are certainly not compañeros by any stretch of the definition. It’s only good timing that prevents Vasco from killing the blue-eyed stranger, and orders from his gun-shy but glory-hungry General that sends him along on a quest to free the idealistic revolutionary leader Professor Xantos (Fernando Rey) from American captivity at Fort Yuma. They make a great screen team, verbally jabbing and prodding one another along the way even when they are forced to rescue one another (left to their druthers, they’d go on alone). Nero plays the witty, worldly cosmopolitan (and, blue eyes and lightly bleached hair aside, the most Mediterranean Swede in the cinema) and Milian the wily survivor, acting on impulse and lobbing insults to his Swedish partner between paeans to his twinkling blue eyes.
Sergio Corbucci is one of the three great Sergios of the spaghetti western (along with Leone and Sollima) and the director of two of the genre’s classics, Django (1966), which made a star of Franco Nero, and the Great Silence (1968). Compañeros (1970) leans into the political arena that Sollima specialized in, using the political chaos and opportunism of the revolution as a volatile cultural backdrop filled with warring factions and freelance mercenaries, while driving the film with capers and cons and capture and escapes. They cross the border, break a prisoner out of an American Fort, and tangle with a dope smoking bounty hunter with a wooden hand and a loyal falcon named Marsha. Jack Palance plays the laconic mercenary John, puffing on joints and smiling a crooked grin as he lazily springs traps and puts his prisoners to sadistic tortures, and his stoner delivery sends the film into a whole realm of weirdness.
Complicating things even more are the (not always clear) conflicts within the revolution, with the grandstanding General Mongo only in it for personal gain and the idealistic Xantos playing the Gandhi of the Mexican Revolution, a pacifist who preaches non-violence while everyone is trying to kill him. That includes the opportunist Mongo, who needs Xantos for his payday but also finds him a threat to his agenda. Sort of. The details are murky, but that’s hardly a problem for a genre all about betrayals and greed. And yet Corbucci, who helped define the the amoral tone of the genre in Django, develops a streak of idealism that builds through the film until it blossoms as a defining theme without any sense of irony or insincerity. While he may not embrace the pacifism of his inspiration Professor, Corbucci certainly respects his integrity, a virtue not always seen in the genre, and presents it without cynicism. And that is quite a feat in a film with a body-count and a mercenary cast of this magnitude. It’s a wily good time with a rousing finish.
The Blu-ray debut features both the American version and the disc debut of the longer Italian cut (with four minutes of additional footage). Both editions, which have been newly mastered from the original negative, offer the choice of English and Italian language soundtracks (the restored scenes to the Italian cut are only in Italian with English subtitles, making them easy to spot). Image quality is great and the DTS-HD Mono soundtracks have that distinctive spaghetti western sound of studio-recorded dialogue and post-synched library sound effects. Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack sounds great.
Carried over from the previous DVD release is commentary by film journalists C. Courtney Joyner and Henry Parke and the 17-minute 2001 interview featurette “In the Company of Companeros” with interviews with stars Franco Nero and Tomas Milian and composer Ennio Morricone.
Camelot (Warner), the 1967 musical epic starring Richard Harris as King Arthur and Vanessa Redgrave as a flower-child Guenevere, is considered a classic by many and a disaster by others. I’m in that other camp.
The original 1960 Broadway production of the musical version of the King Arthur legend by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe was a smash hit turned cultural touchstone, associated forever with the idealism and youth of the John F. Kennedy. But by the time it came to the big screen in 1967, the old studio system was breaking down and youth culture was challenging establishment tastes. The movie version, directed by Broadway veteran and musical specialist Joshua Logan, tried to straddle the gap between old-fashioned Hollywood musical spectacle and the energy and color and themes of sixties culture. The resulting compromise is big and ungraceful and plodding, a lumbering three-hour spectacle.
Richard Harris, famous for playing rebellious, rough-hewn characters, took over the role of King Arthur (originated by Richard Burton) with a mix of regal dignity and working-class origins and Vanessa Redgrave brought youth and unapologetic sexuality to Guenevere (played by Julie Andrews on stage).
Italian actor Franco Nero, however, is neither a charismatic romantic lead nor much a singer as the conceited and sincere Lancelot, the night that captures Guenevere’s heart. He’s just one tone-deaf element to the simplistic take on the Arthurian myth. Lavishly mounted, with magnificent sets and costumes and castle backdrops, it’s also clumsily directed and haphazardly edited, alternately lighthearted and heavy-handed, often in the same scene. And while it has its fans, the bloated, overlong production was a huge financial flop and helped kill the old-fashioned musical.
The Blu-ray release features commentary by film historian Stephen Farber and two well made (if overly admiring) documentary featurettes among the supplements, and comes in an illustrated Blu-ray book case with a soundtrack sampler CD.