Breakout (1975) Review

Director: Tom Gries

Genre(s): Adventure, Crime, Thriller

Runtime: 96 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

According to the IMDb Trivia page for the prison-escape thriller Breakout, it was the first motion picture from a major studio whose release was accompanied by “the now-common saturation pattern.” This apparently means that the film opened in over a thousand American theaters simultaneously, while being backed by a barrage of 17,000 radio advertisements. All of this was in the service of a movie about a pilot named Nick Colton (Charles Bronson) who’s hired to rescue an innocent man – Jay Wagner (Robert Duvall) – from a Mexican fortress-prison.

This is actually a pretty lighthearted role for Charles Bronson, who has his wife Jill Ireland (playing Ann Wagner) co-star with him. His scenes are often pretty comedic and adventurous, meaning that he’s not scowling as much as he usually does. That being said, the light and dark elements don’t always completely mesh here (the oft-serious scenes involving Robert Duvall’s character sometimes feel like something out of a different movie).

Breakout probably doesn’t have as much action as you might expect from a Bronson flick from this time period, but that’s okay. There are a few moments of impressive stuntwork here. I mean, is Bronson actually helping fly that helicopter? It doesn’t look like phony-baloney rear projection to me. Another stunt that springs to mind is the one where a jeep overturns and bursts into flames, with stuntpeople barely missing the fire.

This is not top-tier Bronson right here (the actor takes a while to actually make his first appearance), but it’s watchable fluff. There are some minor pacing issues and it’s not exactly an action extravaganza, yet seeing Bronson play a less-melancholic-than-usual role might be worth the admission price for many. This is, believe it or not, just one of two films released in 1975 to be directed by Tom Gries, star Charles Bronson and Jill Ireland, and have its title begin with “Break.” The other is Breakheart Pass (1975).

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Breakheart Pass (1975) Review

Director: Tom Gries

Genre(s): Adventure, Mystery, Thriller, Western

Runtime: 95 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

It may just be me, but it doesn’t seem like Hollywood cranks out too many mystery-western movies. If that’s a genre combo that you’ve been looking for a film from, Breakheart Pass is worth looking into. Set, of course, in the Wild West, outlaw Deakin (Charles Bronson) finds himself on a train full of medical supplies headed for a diseased military outpost. To complicate matters, people are constantly disappearing or winding up dead on the locomotive.

Written by Alistair MacLean, who wrote the novels that pictures like The Guns of Navarone (1961) and Where Eagles Dare (1968) were based off of, this flick has a solid mystery at its center that never gets too confusing. It’s not too complicated or convoluted, but it is appropriately satisfying. Plus, who doesn’t want to see Charles Bronson in the middle of a murder mystery on a train in the Old West?

Famous stuntman and action choreographer Yakima Canutt served as the second unit director for the movie, handling the set-pieces (it was the last time he would have such a position on a film). I can’t say that it’s his best work, but there is a mighty fist fight atop a moving train car that’s a bit hair-raising. It appears to be death-defying. Sure, the ending gets a little on the silly side, but Breakheart Pass works just as well on the adventure side as it does on the mystery front.

I think that this movie, while not top-of-the-line, is a success. Train aficionados will probably like it, thanks to most of it being set on a locomotive or the immediate exterior of one. Two of Charles Bronson’s notable co-stars here are his real-life wife Jill Ireland (as Marica) and Ed Lauter (playing Claremont), who Bronson would later team up with in the accidental masterpiece Death Wish 3 (1985).

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Sea Hawk (1940) Review

Director: Michael Curtiz

Genre(s): Adventure, Romance

Runtime: 127 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The 1940 anglophile swashbuckler The Sea Hawk serves as an interesting allegory for World War II, made by Hollywood prior to the United States’ entrance into that conflict. Set in the 1500s, Spain (a stand-in for the Axis Powers) is Hellbent on conquering the planet, and daring English privateer (a pirate who works for a government) Geoffrey Thorpe (Errol Flynn) and his crew are the only ones who stop it. It works pretty well as a wartime spirit-raiser, but less so as a thrill-a-minute adventure piece.

The Sea Hawk is, unfortunately, slowly paced, all too often getting bogged down in romance or geopolitical scheming. The love story between Errol Flynn’s character and Doña Maria (Brenda Marshall) largely feels shoehorned in and the plot may have needed some streamlining. Another flaw is that the villains of the picture feel underdeveloped.

On the action front, this movie delivers its best set-piece far too early into its runtime. In fact, the very first action sequence in the film, a thrilling sea battle, is the best one. Nothing after that in the feature can top that for excitement. Yes, there are some other above-average bits of mayhem spread into the mix, like a cool one-versus-four sword duel, but why start a flick with your best action scene?

If there’s one thing that keeps The Sea Hawk being propelled forward, that is its Erich Wolfgang Korngold musical score. It’s a rousing piece of work that elevates the material. That being said, this film largely exists in the realm between “thumbs-up” and “thumbs-down.” It has some great action, but, if you’re in the mood for an Errol Flynn movie, you’re better off with The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). That’s the real deal.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

The Comancheros (1961) Review

Directors: Michael Curtiz and John Wayne

Genre(s): Adventure, Western

Runtime: 107 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The last motion picture directed by Hollywood icon Michael Curtiz (who helmed such classics as Casablanca [1942]) was the John Wayne western The Comancheros. Curtiz was dying during the filming of the movie, and Wayne often stepped in to direct for him. The story of the film concerns Texas Ranger Jake Cutter (John Wayne), who has to take down a society of outlaws selling firearms to hostile Native Americans. The Duke really piles up the corpses in this one.

Let’s start with the good stuff. The musical score by Elmer Bernstein is fabulous, even if it sounds a bit too similar to the one he wrote for The Magnificent Seven (1960) the previous year. The action scenes are very good, with tons of people falling off of horses. They certainly didn’t skimp on the body count here. There’s also some interesting worldbuilding for a western flick, with the bad guys – known as “the Comancheros” – basically being a civilization unto themselves.

What holds back The Comancheros from greatness is mostly its meandering plot. John Wayne working to take down gunrunners takes up only a fraction of the picture’s runtime. Much screentime is devoted to the Duke’s dealings with Paul Regret (Stuart Whitman), a fugitive that he’s slowly befriending, and some time is dedicated to widow Melinda Marshall (Joan O’Brien) who Wayne might be fancying. The film also falls back on the racist trope of there being “tame” Native Americans (those who voluntarily give up their land) and “wild” ones (those who don’t).

Action and music are the strong suits of this movie, while its shortcomings largely have to do with its unfocused nature. That being said, I’m sure fans of John Wayne will find plenty to like here. I just wish that the screenplay had been streamlined a bit and that a couple of slow spots had been patched over. Still, you could do a lot worse.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

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.

The Magnificent Seven (2016) Review

Director: Antoine Fuqua

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

Runtime: 132 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

The 2016 version of The Magnificent Seven can’t top the 1960 original, but it doesn’t go down without one Hell of a fight. In this action-packed western, seven gunmen are hired to help protect a small mining town from robber-baron Bartholomew Bogue’s (Peter Sarsgaard) private army. What this film lacks in originality, it makes up for with fireworks.

2016’s The Magnificent Seven is set domestically in the United States, so it largely lacks the internationalist, Wilsonian edge of the 1960 flick. Still, the seven gunslingers are a diverse bunch, so one could argue that it’s still about people of different backgrounds coming together to fight tyranny. One of the main characters has an unnecessary motivation for his actions (that I won’t spoil here) that sort of ruins the angle that the heroes are doing this from the purity of their hearts, though.

If all you want is Wild West action, this feature delivers that by the wagonload. The final shootout (more of an all-out battle) is a lengthy affair, going through several different stages. This film’s body count is nothing short of ludicrous. In comparison to the 1960 original, there’s a lot more shoot-’em-up, but, in terms of quality, they’re roughly on par with one another.

So, I just prefer The Magnificent Seven (1960), but I can put aside my love of that picture to say that this one is still worth a ride or two (or three). The 1960 film has a more impressive cast and a more riveting musical score by Elmer Bernstein (the 2016 version’s score, by Simon Franglen and James Horner, is downright restrained in comparison). Yeah, it’s hard to beat a classic, but this movie is still worth watching…especially for action-adventure fanatics.

My rating is 8 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.

The Magnificent Seven (1960) Review

Director: John Sturges

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

Runtime: 128 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The original The Magnificent Seven is a truly heroic film that, along with the following year’s The Guns of Navarone (1961), helped define the modern action-adventure movie. This western is about a team of seven gunslingers who travel to Mexico to protect a defenseless village there from a gang of bandits led by Calvera (Eli Wallach). This is a motion picture in the running for the best western flick of all time.

1960’s The Magnificent Seven features what just might be the best action scenes ever committed to film at the time of its original release. They really upped the ante for the action-adventure genre. The thunderous, iconic musical score by Elmer Bernstein is pure energy, and the all-star, tough guy cast is perfect. The script is funny, without defusing any of the tension or sense of danger.

Released between the end of World War II and the height of the Vietnam War, the feature reflects a can-do spirit and a Wilsonian worldview, where the strong are obligated to help fight for the human rights, liberty, and human dignity of the oppressed, regardless of where said oppressed are located on a map. The opening sequences are marked by an odd existential feel, with aimless, bored men searching for something – anything – to bring meaning to their lives. The movie’s lived-in universe is one that the audience does not mind getting lost in.

An important stepping stone between the traditional western and the revisionist western, The Magnificent Seven holds an important place in the history of its genre. Above all else, this is an incredibly inspiring and empowering piece of cinema. Its message of selfless heroism and fighting the good fight has not dimmed with time. This film gets as high a recommendation as I can give.

My rating is 10 outta 10.