The Mercenary (1968) Review

Director: Sergio Corbucci

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Comedy, War, Western

Runtime: 110 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Man, was director Sergio Corbucci on a roll with those “spaghetti westerns” (Italian-made westerns) between the mid-1960s and early-1970s or what? One of the better known of his flicks from this time period is The Mercenary, also sometimes called “A Professional Gun.” Set during the Mexican Revolution, a Polish gun-for-hire named Sergei Kowalski (Franco Nero) finds himself at the service of Paco Roman (Tony Musante), a Mexican bandit who’s an aspiring revolutionary. Many people will be blown away and many genres will be blended along the way.

The remarkable musical score from Ennio Morricone and Bruno Nicolai is one of the first things the audience notices about the movie, and it leaves a major impression. Jack Palance shows up as “Curly,” the picture’s chilling villain. He’s a quietly sinister threat and Palance’s job holds up as one of the best bad guy performances of the 1960s. The action scenes are frequent and frenetic, with plenty of machine gun mayhem. The standout here is probably the highly stylish showdown in the empty bullfighting arena.

The biggest problem with The Mercenary is that it’s pretty episodic at times. The characters played by Franco Nero and Tony Musante are constantly fussin’ and fightin’ as they move from town to town, with Jack Palance’s “Curly” hot on their trail. A stronger central plot might be necessary. It’s interesting to note that this movie has some moral ambiguity for being a “Zapata western” (a politically-conscious western typically set during a time of revolution or rebellion in Mexico), with neither of the leads exactly being terrific role models.

With its effortless tough guy swagger and effective premise, The Mercenary is a must-watch for spaghetti western fans. Its plot may ramble a bit, but it’s fast-paced enough for this to not be a serious concern. For a winning mixture of action-adventure, spaghetti western, war film, and even comedy, check this one out!

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Richard Jewell (2019) Review

Director: Clint Eastwood

Genre(s): Biography, Crime, Drama

Runtime: 131 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Richard Jewell is made in the terse, economical style that one would expect from a movie directed by Clint Eastwood. Its challenging story (based on true events) is about American security guard Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser), who discovers a bomb at a crowded concert at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. However, in this film, it’s really the stuff that takes place after the Olympics that really matter.

The committed performances by the cast definitely sell the picture. Originally, the title character was going to be played by Jonah Hill (who also helped produce the work), but the less-famous Paul Walter Hauser got the role in the end. I think casting a less familiar face for the lead makes the flick a more immersive experience. The resulting movie is taut and efficient, being very effective on the level of making the audience wonder what’s going to happen next.

Despite its engaging nature, the film attracted quite a bit of controversy for its depiction of reporter Kathy Scruggs (played by Olivia Wilde), who is portrayed as a sleazy, narcissistic sort who trades sex for news scoops. Scruggs, who died in 2001, was not around to defend herself, and many felt she was being railroaded the same way that the media and the government railroaded Jewell. It’s hard not to hold this against the finished product, but I don’t think it’s quite enough for me to give it a negative review.

Richard Jewell offers a few problems for viewers just trying to enjoy the picture, yet it’s far more entertaining than not. It offers up some complicated moral dilemmas and some good suspense. It goes to show that a feature doesn’t need a big gunfight at the end to be satisfying. There are parts of the flick that are on-the-nose, but it’s a solid, little drama that its target audience will definitely get a kick out of.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Magnificent Seven Ride! (1972) Review

Director: George McCowan

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Drama, Western

Runtime: 100 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

The Magnificent Seven Ride! is the fourth entry into the franchise, and also the darkest. The plot is sort of a combination of The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Dirty Dozen (1967), being about seven gunfighters, including five prison inmates offered pardons for their handiwork, who must protect a small Mexican village from some raping, murdering, pillaging bandits. It just might be the most engaging of The Magnificent Seven films since the original.

Despite sometimes having a made-for-television quality, this movie still manages to feature some very good action sequences. They’re squibbier than the ones in previous pictures in the series, giving them a more violent edge. Sure, these just might be the weakest set of action set-pieces in the franchise (by just a tad), but they’re still better than those found in most other westerns. There’s really a palpable sense of danger and impending doom here.

The Magnificent Seven Ride! features the least notable set of characters in the series. The flick makes a mistake by recruiting five of the titular seven in one scene, so they don’t get much of a chance to show off their individual personalities. Hell, some of these dudes barely get any distinctive personality at all. The character who returns from the previous three features is played by a different actor in this one (making him the third actor to play this character).

Maybe this movie’s a little weak when it comes to fleshing out supporting characters, but I think it does a better job of establishing tension and dread than Return of the Seven (1966) or Guns of the Magnificent Seven (1969). It’s a solid men-on-a-mission action-adventure picture with some better-than-average gunplay. If you’ve liked the previous films in the series, odds are good you’ll enjoy this one.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Guns of the Magnificent Seven (1969) Review

Director: Paul Wendkos

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Drama, Western

Runtime: 105 minutes

MPAA Rating: G

IMDb Page

The third film in the franchise, Guns of the Magnificent Seven takes a cue or two from the then-rising “Zapata western” subgenre, a politically-charged type of movie that typically revolved around revolts in Mexico. In this picture, seven gunslingers are recruited by Mexican revolutionaries to help them raid a fortress-prison where the tyrannical government is holding political prisoners. The feature takes place during a presumably fictional rebellion, but it seems inspired by the Mexican Revolution that took place from 1910 to 1920.

While the flicks of The Magnificent Seven series have always been known for their large-scale gunfights, Guns of the Magnificent Seven is the only one that could be classified as a war movie. It starts off with some typical western film action, before delving into the world of a Mexican insurrection with a big battle involving the seven virtuous heroes storming a cruel prison-fortress. The action scenes here are excellent, as is par for the course for the series.

So, what about the characters? Well, no set of gunfighters will ever top the crew we saw in the original The Magnificent Seven (1960), but this film does an adequate job of introducing some fresh faces for the audience. The seven here don’t always feel like they’re given proper depth, but at least they’re easy to tell apart. One of the characters from the previous pictures returns (I won’t spoil who), but is played by a different actor.

Guns of the Magnificent Seven is a step up from Return of the Seven (1966). There may be a slow moment or two, but it doesn’t completely imitate the first flick in the franchise. Full of explosions and a big body count, this one will be appreciated by action-adventure junkies and merely tolerated by most others. If you’ve stuck with The Magnificent Seven series through the second installment, why not watch this one too?

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Return of the Seven (1966) Review

Director: Burt Kennedy

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Drama, Western

Runtime: 95 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The second film of the series, Return of the Seven (which is sometimes called “Return of the Magnificent Seven“) is largely just a rehash of The Magnificent Seven (1960), down to the Elmer Bernstein musical score, which repeats all of the same notes. Opening in the same village that the first movie is set in, a gang of bandits arrive and abduct all of the men, leaving only women and children. Apparently, this isn’t the only town that’s been raided in such a way by the bad guys. Of course, it’s up to seven heroic gunslingers to find out where the men are being held (and why) and rescue them.

Let’s start with the good, shall we? The action scenes, while not quite up to par with the ones in the original, are terrific, featuring plenty of explosions and people falling off of horses. The characters are fleshed out well enough, for the most part. Also, the premise of selfless gunmen putting their lives on the line to save the day is still badass. As I mentioned earlier, the musical score is almost identical to the one from the first flick, but it’s still riveting music.

While the characters are easy to tell apart from one another, the reduced runtime of this flick doesn’t really do them any favors. A slightly longer picture would’ve given the inhabitants of it more time to make their mark. There’s also a few instances where characters from the first movie are replaced by different actors in Return of the Seven. I’m not really going to say who, in case it spoils the ending of the 1960 feature, but they’re just not as charismatic as the originals.

For me, Return of the Seven is perhaps the weakest of the films in The Magnificent Seven series. It sticks so close to the formula of the first installment, while reducing the runtime, that it sometimes struggles to have an identity of its own. Still, I can think of worse sequels from other franchises. It’s serviceable if all you want is some rootin’, tootin’ Wild West shoot-’em-up action.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) Review

Director: J. Lee Thompson

Genre(s): Action, Drama, Science-Fiction, Thriller

Runtime: 88 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG (theatrical cut), Not Rated (unrated cut)

IMDb Page

The Planet of the Apes series had been dark before, but, with the fourth entry, it became outright pissed-off. In a fascistic future where all dogs and cats have died due to a plague from outer space, apes are used as pets and slaves by humans. However, one chimpanzee, Caesar (Roddy McDowall), has violent revolt on his mind. This, right here, is the best of the original set of sequels to Planet of the Apes (1968).

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is seething with revolutionary fervor. This is an angry and incendiary film, built around a slave rebellion…and it almost plays out like a start-your-own-state-of-anarchy playbook. It is available in two versions: the standard, PG-rated theatrical cut (that’s still plenty vicious) and a bloodier unrated version with an alternate ending.

The big draw of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is the final action sequence, which lasts about twenty minutes. It is certainly the most sustained scene of mayhem that the franchise has seen yet. It’s exceptional, with humans and apes duking it out at the “Ape Management” building and in the streets of the city that the picture is set in. Its budget wasn’t unlimited, but director J. Lee Thompson (who had previously helmed The Guns of Navarone [1961]) uses his resources very effectively.

Roddy McDowall gives a surprisingly good performance, considering that he’s covered in chimpanzee make-up. It’s a little odd seeing dirty apes, when they’re being used as slaves, serving humans food and touching all of their precious belongings. Get past that, and you’ll be rewarded with a fiery, dramatic, action-oriented sci-fi film with plenty of passion. Forget satire and nuance, let’s get straight to violent revolution!

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) Review

Director: Don Taylor

Genre(s): Adventure, Drama, Science-Fiction, Thriller

Runtime: 98 minutes

MPAA Rating: G

IMDb Page

Somehow, after the ending of Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), the Planet of the Apes series was kept alive, and the third film in the franchise is one of the more unique entries into its canon. Three ape astronauts – Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), Zira (Kim Hunter), and Milo (Sal Mineo) – arrive in the 1970s United States in the salvaged spacecraft used by the humans in the original Planet of the Apes (1968). This one is special, being the least action-oriented of the series.

Escape from the Planet of the Apes actually starts out like a fish-out-of-water comedy. How would these apes react to being slapped down in the middle of the twentieth-century United States? It’s mostly light stuff, but the film’s increasing thriller elements mean this merriment doesn’t last forever. There are no clear heroes or villains here.

As mentioned above, this picture is not very concerned with physical action. It’s more about exploring complicated moral dilemmas, something it does quite well. Despite a minimum of fighting, the film does end on a very grim note. Like the previous entries in the Planet of the Apes series, its G rating from the MPAA should be ignored.

The plot of Escape from the Planet of the Apes is mighty contrived and implausible, but it’s a successful midway point for the 1960s/1970s incarnation of the franchise. No explosions or intricately choreographed fights here, yet its solid pacing and unafraid examinations of important moral matters make it a winner. It’s sometimes regarded as the best of the sequels from the ’60s/’70s series, and, while I don’t agree with that, it’s definitely a feature worth watching.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) Review

Director: Ted Post

Genre(s): Adventure, Science-Fiction, Thriller

Runtime: 95 minutes

MPAA Rating: G

IMDb Page

When people think of Planet of the Apes (1968) being a cheesy movie, they probably have something along the lines of its first sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, in mind. This is the one where astronaut Brent (James Franciscus) lands on the same ape-controlled planet as the crew from the original film does, and finds himself in the middle of a war between the apes and a race of underground mutants. Yeah, this is the point where things really start to get out of control.

This one feels slightly cheaper-made than the 1968 classic. There’s still lots of stuff going on, but, in comparison to the first one, this one has a bit of made-for-television quality to it at times (though it was released in theaters). The star, James Franciscus, is basically just a Charlton Heston lookalike, and he goes through a similar journey to that of Heston’s in the original. There’s also some “satire” here that is almost comically on-the-nose.

Still, there are a few good action set-pieces to enjoy. The film’s tone is pitch-black, with some nihilistically violent scenes. The movie’s G-rating from the MPAA is truly a joke. It’s a dark picture, almost horror movie-ish at times, but that’s part of its appeal. The budget may be lower, but it’s fun to watch to see how zany and off-the-wall it can get.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes is certainly a piece of sci-fi kitsch, but I like that kind of stuff. It’s not essential viewing if you liked the 1968 original, especially if you have a low tolerance level for cinematic cheese. Despite the film’s bleak nature, the scariest part of the feature is actually its end credits, which credit Victor Bruno’s character as “Fat Man” and Don Pedro Colley’s as “Negro.” Yikes!

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Story of Temple Drake (1933) Review

Director: Stephen Roberts

Genre(s): Crime, Drama

Runtime: 70 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The 1933 drama The Story of Temple Drake is a picture from the Pre-Code era of Hollywood (before the enforcement of the Production Code) that feels ahead-of-its-time. After a drunken car crash, town flirt Temple Drake (Miriam Hopkins) and Toddy Gowan (William Collier Jr.), the latest man chasing her, find themselves trapped at a remote Southern plantation mansion controlled by vile gangster Trigger (Jack La Rue). Based on the 1931 William Faulkner novel Sanctuary, this one proved to be quite controversial back in the day.

This film is really in its element when at the plantation used as a bootlegger hideout by Jack La Rue’s character (his performance is hypnotic here). These scenes have a semi-surreal and dreamlike quality to them that was largely absent from mainstream American movies at the time of its release. Some of the actors give performances that can only be described as “zombified,” only heightening the otherworldliness. The cinematography’s also pretty incredible.

On the down side, the last act of the flick is largely concerned with courtroom scenes that lack the sinister nature of previous sequences. This part of the movie is appropriately suspenseful, but it just doesn’t have the thick atmosphere of the mobster hideout stuff. The slower pace of these scenes don’t do the overall film any favors.

The role of the gangster Trigger was originally offered to George Raft, but he turned down the gig, fearing an association with this feature would ruin his career. The Story of Temple Drake has a satisfactory opening act, a really, really strong middle act, and a final act that…works well, but can’t top what came before it. It’s a moody, menacing movie…one that fans of the classics will probably want to check out.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Safe in Hell (1931) Review

Director: William A. Wellman

Genre(s): Adventure, Crime, Drama

Runtime: 73 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

William A. Wellman was one of the iconic film directors of the Pre-Code era of Hollywood in the early 1930s, prior to the enforcement of the Production Code. His movies during this period included the James Cagney gangster masterpiece The Public Enemy (1931) and Safe in Hell, released the same year. This drama (with adventure and crime elements) follows New Orleans prostitute Gilda Carlson (Dorothy Mackaill) who finds herself on the run from the law after she believes herself responsible for the killing of Piet Van Saal (Ralf Harolde), the man who forced her to take up the world’s oldest profession in the first place. On the lamb, she seeks refuge on a Caribbean island with no extradition treaty with the United States.

Safe in Hell is a picture that thrives on atmosphere. Being based on a play by Houston Branch, most of the action is set in a seedy hotel on the island the main character is hiding out on. It’s not exactly a fast-paced flick, with much of the runtime being dedicated to Gilda biding her time, waiting for her sailor fiancĂ©, Carl Bergen (Donald Cook), to help rescue her.

As bleak as this feature’s tone is, it should be noted that the two major non-white characters in it, hotel manager Leonie (Nina Mae McKinney) and hotel porter Newcastle (Clarence Muse), are treated with a surprising amount of dignity (this was a period when non-whites in cinema were typically stereotyped characters that would be considered offensive today). The runtime’s pretty short – only a little over 70 minutes – so the story is handled economically. That ending seems pretty sudden, though.

Safe in Hell is a gritty, street-tough drama that classic film fanatics will probably be entertained by. It’s not as good as some of Wellman’s other motion pictures, like the aforementioned The Public Enemy or the World War I aviation actioner Wings (1927), but it doesn’t have to be. Here’s a bit of trivia: Boris Karloff was originally intended to have a small role in this movie, although he doesn’t actually appear in it.

My rating is 7 outta 10.