Sunday, March 20, 2011

Duck, You Sucker!

Duck, You Sucker!, a Spaghetti Western, is sometimes known as A Fistful of Dynamite and sometimes as Once Upon a Time…The Revolution.  Why all the confusion?  This is a film that never quite found a following during its theatrical release, despite director Sergio Leone’s past success with other Westerns.  In fact, the original theatrical version cut out about thirty minutes from the run-time and was advertised as a funny Western; if you’re familiar with Leone’s work, you will readily understand the idiocy of that move.  When it was re-released in theaters, along with the Man With No Name trilogy, the title was changed to A Fistful of Dynamite, to imply a relationship to the excellent Clint Eastwood-Sergio Leone collaborations.  In some European theatrical runs, they chose Once Upon a Time…The Revolution to imply a thematic connection (which Leone intended) with Once Upon a Time in the West.  International filmmaking was a different beast in the early 1970s, to say the least.

The title was supposed to be “Duck Your Head, Asshole!” which Leone swore was a popular catchphrase in America; it never was, but I think we can all agree that it probably should have been.  In fact, I think I’m going to bring it back.

In 1913, during the Mexican Revolution, Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger) is a bandit leader.  Since his gang consists primarily of his own young sons, he is a strictly small-time crook, but he has ambition.  When Juan’s gang runs into John Mallory (James Coburn) motorcycling by their latest crime scene, they open fire and force him to stop.  Their next move is to rob him, but John is not your ordinary gringo.  He is actually an IRA explosives expert, in Mexico to avoid British authorities.  Seeing John’s talent as an omen, Juan tries his best to convince John to help him rob the Mesa Verde national bank, a place he has dreamed of robbing since his childhood.  John eventually agrees to go to Mesa Verde, but makes no promises about the bank; when Juan arrives in Mesa Verde after John, he learns that John has befriended the local rebels; that worries him, because there is rarely money in revolutions.  Nevertheless, Juan agrees to go along with John’s plan.  The two of them, with help from Juan’s gang, will break into the bank while the other revolutionaries simultaneously hit all the other major targets in town.  Juan assumes that they will grab the loot and leave town in a hurry, leaving the revolutionaries on the hook for the robbery.  Little does he realize that John has intended to join the revolution from the start; once a revolutionary, always a revolutionary, I guess.  Even worse (for Juan) is the fact that the bank hasn’t had money in it in months; instead, it houses hundreds of political prisoners.  When Juan leads the break-in, he is flabbergasted to find no riches, but it hailed as a hero of the revolution by those that he frees.  Juan may have become a hero only by accident, but it’s harder to kick the hero habit than you may think.  As the film progresses, Juan is thrust into more and more important roles for the revolution.  But at what cost?
I wouldn't say that Sergio Leone gets the most out his actors, but he does a great job transforming minute movements and inconsequential glances into intense scenes.  Like his other movies, you get your fair share of impressive wide-shots and extreme close-ups in this film.  My favorite visual scenes (and Leone is a visual director, if nothing else) were the big shoot-outs, one involving the derailing of a train and the other had big guns taking out soldiers on a bridge.  This is definitely the most action-packed Leone film; while the action scenes are spaced pretty well apart, they are the largest scale and length that he ever attempted.

As for the acting...well, you've seen and heard better.  Rod Steiger doesn't play a very convincing Mexican, despite the right genealogy for the role (he's French, German, and Scottish).  His accent is cartoonish and his acting --- especially in the film's first act --- is pretty hammy.  He gets better as the film progresses, though, and I thought he was actually decent for the final attack on the train.  James Coburn fares a little better and a little worse than Steiger.  On the bright side, Coburn is always a blast when he plays anyone with somewhat compromised morals, and he has a lot of fun toying with Juan in this movie.  And he has a fantastic mustache.
To answer your question, he's not just happy to see you.
His Irish accent is about as subtle as the Lucky Charms leprechaun, though, and that gets embarrassing pretty quickly.  Another blow to Coburn's performance is the fact that he is involved in the worst scenes in the film, a love triangle set back in the Emerald Isle.  If you can get past Steiger's overacting and Coburn's awful flashbacks, though, you have two solid actors covering a lot of dramatic ground in a single movie.

And it is a long movie.  Loooooong.  The version that is currently available is over two-and-a-half hours long, and you feel every minute tick by.  Leone was never a concise storyteller, but this was unnecessary.  The only good thing about the running time is that it allows the film to shift its tone very gradually from an almost-comedy in the first act to a political piece by the film's end.  I appreciate a lot of what Leone has to say, as far as politics go, but I think he could have done better if he left a little more on the editing room floor.

Specifically, I would have cut every single flashback scene for Coburn's character.  They are shot in some Vaseline-coated camera lens style, often in slow-motion and are downright creepy at times.  I get it, John Mallory and his friend had a crush on the same gal.  Maybe they shouldn't have taken turns making out with her in front of each other.  These scenes are sappy, melodramatic, and add absolutely nothing to the character.  What a worthless waste of film time.

You can make other, very reasonable, complaints about this movie.  The comedy at the beginning isn't really very funny, unless you laugh at bad accents.  The shift in tone is unusual and a little uncomfortable.  It feels longer than President William Henry Harrison's time in office.  I totally understand your complaints, and I empathize with you.  This isn't Leone's best work, but it's pretty damn ambitious.  Overall, I think that it works, although it is far from a masterpiece.  My biggest problem with this movie is that I have spurts of boredom while watching it.  There are several scenes that I like, but it doesn't hold my interest overall.  It's not bad, though.  It's just trying to explain why revolution is not a part-time gig, and that gets a little tiresome no matter how true it is.  Duck your head, asshole.

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