A Fistful of Dynamite Blu-ray Review: Viva la Sergio Leone Revolucion

For many filmgoers, Sergio Leone made four movies, four Westerns that helped to define the perception of the Spaghetti Western. Maybe he made some gangster thing later, but that production was mired in controversy… and the movie ended up way too damn long.

Buy A Fistful of Dynamite Special Edition Blu-ray

Sandwiched between Once Upon a Time in the West, and Once Upon a Time in America, is the “lost” Sergio Leone movie, A Fistful of Dynamite, a.k.a. Duck, You Sucker. It was never “lost” in the sense that it was unavailable, but it’s often skipped over in discussions of the director’s work. This is likely because the film has been severely edited, with entire scenes removed. The initial release was 138 minutes. This Blu-ray contains what I think is one of the most complete releases of the film at 157 minutes.

Our protagonists (kind of – this is a Leone movie) are Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger) and John Mallory (James Coburn). Juan is a Mexican bandit in 1913, the year of the Mexican revolution. But he has no time for politics. When he robs a carriage full of rich capitalists, it’s for the money, not for the people. He runs across John Mallory, an ex-IRA dynamite expert who fled Ireland as a terrorist and came to Mexico to mine silver. When Juan sees John’s expertise with explosions, all he can think about is the big bank in Mesa Verde. He wants John’s help. John wants him to piss off and blows up his carriage to make his point.

Through various machinations, they both end up in Mesa Verde and collaborating with revolutionaries. John assures Juan this is just a cover to rob the bank, but when they get in and open the vaults, there’s no money there. Just political prisoners. So, Juan is suddenly the very reluctant poster boy for the revolution.

A Fistful of Dynamite is shot in Leone’s familiar, operatic style. Scenes go on as long as they need to, and then a lot longer. Leone is obsessed with faces and landscapes, the micro and the macro. This film has more big battles than his previous Westerns, large groups of men shooting at each other. This doesn’t allow him to focus as much on individuals, which is his strength in action scenes.

His characters here are just as morally ambiguous as the earlier Westerns. It’s been my contention that the only reason Clint Eastwood is “The Good” and Lee Van Cleef “The Bad” is because the movies tell us so. They’re equally unsavory. With this film John and Juan have their own black patches. John is a murdering terrorist. It’s heavily implied that Juan rapes a rich woman in his initial carriage robbery. It’s also implied she might be into it, which is its own can of worms.

John, a former Irish revolutionary, tells Juan one revolution is enough in his life. Juan has very specific, very heated arguments against revolutions. He argues academics rile up the poor people with their theories, and all that happens is the poor end up dead. But they end up heroes of the revolution after all, even when constantly acting for selfish reasons.

As is usual, the score for the film is by Ennio Morricone. He helmed some of the most iconic scores of all time in Leone’s previous films. I’m not as warm to Fistful of Dynamite‘s theme. It has the familiar vocalizing from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, but the feeling is lighter and more pop. It does not have the same resonance, and I found it made some scenes that I felt should have been heavier too light. But that might have been Leone’s intent, since there’s a general comic tone through the movie, even as it’s one of the director’s most violent.

Ultimately, I’m not surprised this film is not as celebrated as the Clint Eastwood trilogy or Once Upon a Time in the West. A Fistful of Dynamite does a lot well. It has bravura action sequences. It has brilliantly executed shots. My favorite is a long shot of a courtyard where a firing squad execution is about to take place. The camera moves in a circle from the place of the execution to the landscape of the city. It eventually lands on a poster of the governor… which is slashed open from behind, Juan’s eyes replacing the governor’s as he watches the execution. It must have been a wildly complicated thing to pull off.

But the film tries to be weighty and light at the same time. The story is about these mismatched strangers trying to pull off a heist and ending up revolutionary heroes. But the film opens with a quote about the necessity of revolutionary violence by Mao Tse-tung. You can be a goofball action movie, or a commie call to action. Not both.

That’s a tonal argument. This movie is not tonally consistent. What is consistent is its beautiful filmmaking and entertaining scenes. While I’ve said I prefer Leone in his more intimate action sequences, there’s a scene with John and Juan defending a bridge that is amazing in its scope and execution. And it has an explosion. This movie has a lot of explosions, and they’re all great. And looking back at so many great sequences, my complaints feel like small beer compared to what A Fistful of Dynamite has to offer. If you’re a Leone fan and you’ve been missing this one, catch up. You’ll be glad you did.

A Fistful of Dynamite has been released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber Studio Classics. Extras include two commentaries: one by filmmaker Alex Cox, and another by film historian Sir Christopher Frayling, Sergio Leone’s biographer. Video extras include six featurettes: “The Myth of the Revolution” (23 min) with Christopher Frayling; “Sergio Donati Remembers” (8 min), an interview with the screenwriter; “Once Upon a Time in Italy (The Autry Exhibition)” (6 min), about Sergio Leone’s legacy; “Sorting Out the Versions” (12 min), about the different versions of the film; “Restoration Italian Style” (6 min) about the restoration of the film; and “Location Comparisons” (10 min.) There’s also image galleries, a trailer and radio spots.

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Kent Conrad

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