Sunday, February 1, 2009

Joe D'Amato's TOUGH TO KILL (Duri a Morire,1978)

"You were the ones at each other's throats like wild geese," one character tells a mercenary toward the end of Joe D'Amato's movie in an apparent nod (by the English dub scripter, at least) toward the film's obvious inspiration. Tough to Kill most likely made it to America after and because of the international success of Andrew V. McLaglen's The Wild Geese, and may have been made in anticipation of a demand for mercenary movies following the bigger-budgeted star-packed film. It's not inconsistent with D'Amato's globetrotting filmography, however. According to IMDB, this was his next project after Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals, aka Trap Them And Kill Them, and from the tainted evidence of the BCI DVD, it's a much more modest effort.

It opens with Luc Merenda arriving in an African city. Signs are in (I'm guessing) Portuguese, and since Merenda's character later says he had recently been in Angola, this must be Mozambique. He rents out a safe-deposit box, puts a slip of paper in it, sticks the key in his necklace, and leaves his briefcase behind in a market. He applies for a $1,200 a month job as a mercenary and identifies himself only as Martin. He gets the job despite not speaking the local language ("I only shot'em," he explains, "I didn't have to talk to them.") and is quickly flown to a military base, after which his plane is promptly blown up.

On his way to the base, his new buddy Mike takes him to Papadino's, where a "Levantine son of a whore" holds court and where Martin seems to befriend a ragged native with a Pepsi bottle. A bottle opener might have helped, but the thought counts. The base is run by Major Haggerty, nicknamed "Ex-Lax." There are two reasons for the name. First, he'll tie men to posts for hours for disrespecting his flag-raising ceremony, and one victim finishes his ordeal with a heavy load in his pants. Second, he likes to challenge potential officers or loudmouths to the fifteen-second test. We see him take one such person into a sandbagged circle, where he pulls a pin out of a grenade and drops it between them. It's basically a game of chicken: the man dives for cover before Haggerty does, and that proves he isn't officer material.

Donal O'Brien as Major "Ex-Lax" in Joe D'Amato's TOUGH TO KILL
(screen capture from )

"This is a very special sort of army," Haggerty tells Martin later, "I'll stay in command as long as I'm capable of snapping the spine of any presumptuous young upstart like yourself." He hits Martin in the gut with his rifle butt for emphasis, ostensibly to chastise Martin for preferring a revolver to the standard-issue weapon. Haggerty puts him to another early test with an obstacle course. With his remote controls, Haggerty can create firewalls, blow dust in men's faces with giant fans, and open trapdoors beneath them. This last trick costs Martin the victory while the ragged gentleman from earlier looks on. The native attracts hostile attention from Leon, one of Haggerty's minions, a sort of sadist who gets kicks from stunts like dripping hot wax on another soldier's pet rabbit. Leon forces the native into a vat of waste, then threatens to chop his head off, forcing the poor man to dip his head all the way into the sewage. "Now you're back to your natural color," Leon laughs.

Undeterred, the native (apparently named Wavu) begs to become Martin's water boy or all-around flunky. He passes Martin's test by not flinching when Martin pulls a gun on him and threatens to shoot him. Martin has a mysterious agenda. A local woman realizes this, telling him, "You seem to mind your own business, but you don't miss a thing." He's working on a sketch of Leon, as if adding a beard to a pre-existing image.

Haggerty wants volunteers for a suicide mission to capture an enemy-held dam. It takes the promise of 500 pounds, 10,000 pounds in insurance, plus the even split of shares of anyone who dies in the mission, to get a sufficient number to go. Along the way, Martin saves the clumsy Leon from sinking in quicksand. This arouses Haggerty's suspicions, since who'd care if a creep like Leon dies? The answer: as Haggerty well knows, since that's why he's here, there's a $1,000,000 price on Leon's head. Martin has a customer prepared to pay if Leon is delivered to a certain rendezvous point. How about a two-way split? For that matter, how about a four-way, as Mike and Polansky, the guy with the rabbit, overhear the negotiations? Done: they all desert with a captive Leon in tow before the battle gets hot. The rest of the mercs are wiped out, including the man who'd failed the fifteen-second test earlier. I guess Haggerty was right about him.

Our group of five, plus Wavu who had loyally followed Martin into battle, find themselves under attack. They get into a giant metal barrel and roll their way into a mine tunnel which takes them to safety. Alas, Mike is gut-shot, a goner. He asks to be left a gun to slow down the inevitable pursuit and take care of himself. "When they come through that tunnel it'll be like shooting rabbits," he says bravely, "No offense, Polansky."

Polansky proves strangely compliant when a hungry Leon suggests killing and cooking the rabbit. Once it's done, however, Polansky insists that Leon eat it all, after it's nicely laced with the cyanide that the mercs were issued before the battle. No harm, no foul: Martin's friends will accept a corpse, but now the survivors are going to have to drag the dead weight the rest of the way. That doesn't last as Leon starts to stink. Then they realize that they really only need the man's head for identification. "Bring Us the Head of Leon Whatsisname," if you like.

Haggerty hopes to eliminate the others and collect all the bounty. He and Polansky stage a duel in the forest, but Polansky succumbs to a booby-trap. Martin was wounded in the leg during the earlier attack, and as he falters, Haggerty pressures him to reveal the rendezvous site, alternately promising to share the proceeds or threatening to give up on the money altogether and abandon him in the wild. He beats up Wavu, leaving it down to him and Martin, who finally tells him where to go, but claims that no one can collect without him. Haggerty heads off, but Wavu reappears to help him to the edge of Georgeville, where Haggerty awaits his payday pending confirmation based on Leon's dental records. Everything's in order, and Martin's employers have no reason not to trust Haggerty, but the Major is in for a few rude surprises before the end of the picture....

I hesitate to pass judgment on what I've seen because BCI has unwittingly admitted that their print of Tough to Kill is compromised. On the company's Maximum Action Collection set, the movie's running time is listed as 90 minutes. As presented, it was barely 84 minutes. Quite a bit of material is most likely missing, and probably plenty of the stuff that would make this more like a typical Joe D'Amato film. As it stands now, this is a D'Amato film where a man is gut-shot, and we never see the guts. Nor is there any real gore or nudity. The grossest thing in the picture is Leon forcing Wavu into the vat of crap. But BCI wants us to understand that this is an R-rated film.

Worse, while the film is letterboxed, the image is of varying bad quality, with some sections murkier than others. As one moment of bad tracking betrays, this is a dupe from a videotape. This disappointed me given what I thought was BCI's good record with recent releases. I wasn't clear whether Crown International, BCI's usual source, released Tough To Kill in America, or whether BCI just snapped up a public-domain print to pad out Maximum Action, which also includes a fullscreen version of Carlo Lizzani's The Last Four Days and six widescreen action films from the 80s, including Nine Deaths of the Ninja.

But based on what I'm saw, I doubt whether Duri a Morire was ever that good. It seems uninspired either on the conventional literary level or on the exploitation level. For a mercenary movie it's terribly low on gunplay and body count, and Luc Merenda's Martin is a dull hero without an agenda of compelling interest to me. Also, from the moment Wavu was introduced I had an inkling of how the movie would end, and D'Amato didn't disappoint me except with the predictability of the outcome. Nor was Stelvio Cipriani's score particularly inspired; his jungle-disco stylings lacked the forcefulness or menace that the movie needed. Something more like what he came up with for Cross Mission would have worked better. But he and D'Amato were busy men in those days, and both can be excused for off efforts occasionally. The only person who really rose to the occasion was Donal O'Brien as Major Haggerty. He has to ratchet up his performance to make up for Merenda's dullness, and he ends up the most convincing badass in the cast. The location shooting by D'Amato under his real name is also well-done, but the atmosphere is somewhat undermined by Cipriani's too-jaunty music.

Overall, Tough To Kill is neither shocking nor laughable, and thus falls short as an exploitation item. It isn't prominent in D'Amato's filmography for precisely that reason, -- and is obscure enough that no one has posted a trailer or clips online -- but his fans and fans of Merenda's Italian crime films will probably want to take a look at this at some point.

1 comment:

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