Il Mercenario is what some call a "Zapata Western," one of the many Italian westerns set primarily in Mexico rather than the U.S. Set during the Revolution of the 1910s, it anticipates the end-of-the-West atmosphere of similarly set The Wild Bunch, but does without the elegiac tone. The Italian filmmakers are too interested in revolution to worry about the end of things. Mercenario resembles Wild Bunch less than it does its major Italian precursors: Damiano Damiani's A Bullet for the General, which established the motif of the ambivalent team-up of Mexican bandit/rebel and Gringo specialist, and Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, which set the three-character pattern repeated here. In addition, Mercenario references Leone's For A Few Dollars More in its climactic staging by the "good" hero of a fair-fight showdown between the "bad" and "ugly" characters. For A Few Dollars More itself doesn't yet have the good-bad-ugly formula down -- it's really two goods vs. a bad-ugly -- so Mercenario's climax seems more generically perfect. But in discussing the climax I'm getting ahead of myself.
The Gringo is Kowalski (Franco Nero, star of Corbucci's genre breakthrough Django), an erstwhile Polish revolutionary who's hired by a family of Mexican mine owners to transport their silver to the U.S. Before setting out for the mine, he has a shootout with a gambler and by killing him earns the enmity of Curly (Jack Palance), our Bad character. If the story has a weakness, it's that Corbucci never really builds Curly up as a super gunfighter or even a particularly tough guy. Curly usually has other people do his dirty work for him. Corbucci illustrates this by having his camera follow Palance while his goons beat or kill people offscreen, only returning to the scene of violence when Curly inspects their handiwork. Palance makes up for this with a performance that grows stranger, without really going over the top, as the film goes on.
Arriving at the mine, Kowalski finds that the proprietors have been captured and hanged by Paco Roman (Tony Musante), a small-time bandit first scene rebelling against his wretched existence as a mine worker and barely escaping execution by trampling. Paco is the Ugly character: uneducated and crude, resentful toward inequality but constantly tempted by self-interest. But self-interest defines Kowalski. When the army descends on the mine, he offers to aid the bandits with the machine gun he brought along to defend the silver -- but only if Paco pays him from the plunder. The army routed, Kowalski goes his way -- only to run into Curly's gang. Paco rescues him, having realized that Kowalski's weapons and wits will make his a more formidable rebel force. Inexplicably, they spare Curly after killing his men, though they probably expect him to die after they strip him down to his shirt (leaving no bottoms) to make his way back to civilization. Curly shows his true character under adversity, however, defiantly tossing the shirt at his enemies' feet and marching off stark naked after promising that he'll meet both men again.
With Kowalski's aid, Paco becomes a terror, sacking towns and acquiring a girlfriend, Columba (Giovanna Ralli) who may be the most cynical of all the characters, having no illusions about either of her liberators. The two protagonists are constantly renegotiating their alliance. Kowalski is always ready to walk away, but every time Paco realizes anew that he can't do without the "Polack," the mercenary demands more pay and gets it. Whatever idealism he had in Europe seems long gone, while Paco's experiences of power as he judges between rich and poor make him more ambitious and less tolerant of Kowalski's greed. Finally, he decides that the Pole can't leave Mexico without surrendering all his plunder to "the revolution" and throws him in prison to prove his point. Now, however, Curly reappears, apparently as an adviser to the regular Army. What advice can he offer? The same kind Carl Denham offers... airplanes! Actually, it's one biplane, but it does devastating damage to Paco's base of operations, and it's a shocking intervention of modernity into our familiar spaghetti-western fantasyland. As usual, it's up to Kowalksi to save the day, and the Pole may be the ultimate spaghetti western hero. How many others ever shot down an airplane?
Kowalski's victory is just one round in a fight Paco can't win, and both men have to flee. Months later, Paco is a clown in a circus fighting a pantomime bull when Kowalksi finds him. Curly finds him at the same time, but as always, Curly is soon short of sidekicks and it's time for the climax. It's one of the greatest showdowns in spaghetti westerns. Kowalski has the upper hand and makes Paco and Curly fight a duel with rifles, each with one bullet. They walk to opposite ends of the bull ring and wait for the Pole to ring a bell three times before turning and firing. The bell punctuates an unusually upbeat theme from Ennio Morricone; it's the same music you hear when Uma Thurman punches her way out of the grave in Kill Bill Vol. 2. It seems to be the music playing in Curly's head. As the moment of truth approaches, while Paco is stuck out there in clown makeup, Palance puts on an beatific expression, and you get the eerie feeling that he may not care whether he wins or loses. He's put his fate in the hands of a higher power. Superficially it looks like a mockery of Leone's showdowns; one of the combatants literally is a clown. But the overall effect, between the music and Palance's ecstatic anticipation, is like something sacred. Earlier, Paco's gang had desecrated a Catholic street festival by disguising themselves as saints on a float so they can assassinate a podium full of watching army officers, with Columba as a bearded, machine-gun firing angel or saint. The duel is their true sacrament, or their auto-da-fe -- or if it's not theirs, it's ours.
Unfortunately, the film has nearly 15 minutes left to go and no hope of topping that showdown. The final twists and reversals all seem anticlimactic, but the whole story has really been little more than a pretext for cinematic sensation. Django and the bleak, wintry Great Silence are regarded as the two towers of Corbucci's work in the western genre, but on the pictorial level, at least, The Mercenary may be his masterpiece. I've mentioned the fluid camera movements over long takes as the director actually avoids violence to follow Palance around, but practically every frame of the picture is a brilliant composition. Cinematographer Alejandro Ulloa has a lot to do with that. Mercenario has a richer palate than many spaghettis; you're more aware of the sky in all its colors than you are in many genre films that foreground blasted earth, stark mountains or mud.
This film has the sweep of high adventure, and Morricone rises to the occasion with an epic score. Nero is more a presence than a personality, but that works just fine for this picture, while Musante somehow manages to underplay his Ugly role, making Paco thoughtful if not necessarily intelligent. And as I've suggested, in an underwritten part Palance is amazing. The Mercenary may not be among the greatest spaghetti westerns, but it's certainly one of the most enjoyable I've seen in a long time.
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