Sunday, October 5, 2008

FILM REVIEW OF ''ANY GUN CAN PLAY'' (Italian/Spanish-1967)

After Sergio Leone's "Fistful of Dollars" became a surprise hit in Europe in the early 1960s, producers started shooting what came to be called 'Spaghetti westerns' by the dozens. This entertaining, low-budget, Euro-western appeared along about the time of Leone's "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly." The hero in "Any Gun Can Play" is a bounty hunter like the Clint Eastwood protagonist in "Fistful of Dollars" and "For A Few Dollars More." The hero here is modeled on him. He sports a beard, smokes, and wears a poncho. "Any Gun Can Play" opens with a scene that predates a similar one that Leone sought to lens for "Once Upon A Time in the West," but he couldn't persuade Clint Eastwood to appear in it. Three tough-looking gunslingers ride into a western town. One is dressed like Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name character in a poncho. Another resembles Lee Van Cleef's Colonel Douglas Mortimer from "For A Few Dollars More," and the third is garbed like Franco Nero's "Django," except he rides a horse instead of hauls a coffin around behind him with a machine gun in it. Our hero confronts them in Main Street behind a wagon loaded with three caskets. "Any Gun Can Play" is a spaghetti western with an in-joke on spaghetti westerns since the hero here wipes out all the three killers. Aside from a surfeit of comedy, especially in the acrobatic fight sequences, Enzo G. Castellari's lightweight western qualifies as an above-average oater. The cast is excellent. George Hilton starred in dozens of Italian westerns and Gilbert Roland and Edd Byrnes made their share.

The notorious Mexican outlaw Montero (Gilbert Roland of "Barbarosa") and his gang of trigger-happy pistoleros rob an army train transporting $300-thousand dollars in gold coins across the frontier. Director Enzo G. Castellari of "Inglorious Bastards" stages the hold-up from a variety of camera angles that thrusts us into the forefront of the fracas. The bandits seize the locomotive along with the coach carrying the gold and separate it from the rest of the train that houses the U.S. Cavalry. Actually, during the initial stop to remove a telegraph pole across the rails, Clayton behaves suspiciously near the gold car. While Montero and his gunmen keep the Cavalry pinned down, Pajondo (Pedro Sanchez of "Sabata") commandeers the locomotive, kills the engineer and his crew and trundles it away, leaving the other pistoleros behind to fend for themselves. Essentially, Pajondo double-crosses Montero and steals the gold for himself. Later, Montero catches up with Pajondo at the Rio Grande. Before the bandit can reveal the whereabouts of the loot to Montero, however, a Cavalry sergeant shoots Pajondo dead. Before he dies, Pajondo tells Montero about a medallion that serves as a clue about where he stashed the treasure. The irate Cavalry captain (Ivano Staccioli of "Commandos") imprisons Montero, but he cannot loosen the bandit's tongue even after he wields his whip on him. Infuriated by Montero's reticence, the captain threatens to have the Mexican shot if he doesn't spill his guts.

Meanwhile, the jailers permit a priest speak to Montero, but the priest really isn't a priest. The six-gun toting Stranger (George Hilton of "The Ruthless Four") masquerades as a man of the cloth and has a conversation with the bandit chieftain. Later, he rescues Montero from a firing squad. Unfortunately, before Montero is rescued, Clayton (Edd Byrnes of TV's "77 Sunset Strip") takes the medallion away from Montero and keeps it for himself. Clayton is the bank representative that was sent to safeguard the gold. He is horrified that the Captain wants to shoot Montero. Clayton's career at the bank hinges on his ability to recover the gold. The Stranger stages a fire at the fort to distract the firing squad, and Montero takes the Captain as hostage and tries to escape, but the Stranger shoots him off the horse. Before the authorities can verify that Montero is dead, the Stranger claims the body for the handsome reward he will receive and he rides out with the Captain's gracious thanks. No sooner have they left the fort than Montero's men show up to rescue him from the Stranger. From this point on, the Stranger, Montero, and Clayton forge short-lived alliances among each other as they search for the gold. Castellari and scenarist Tito Carpi, who has penned a number of spaghetti westerns such as "A Few Dollars For Django" and another Castellari oater "Seven Winchesters for a Massacre," rely on clever humor and surprise reversals to keep the action fresh and fast-paced. One cool scene has Clayton seated at a table about to eat his meal when he hears some suspicious sounds from behind him. Clayton pours his drink on the table and sees the gunmen behind him with holstered six-guns.

"Any Gun Can Play" (*** out of ****) lives up to its title. In fact, many guns do play, and at least twenty or more corpses pile up before fade-out. This western isn't so much a parody as it is a knock-off of Sergio Leone's "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly." Mind you, bad guys and good guys fall as frequently as ten-pins in a bowling alley, but their deaths aren't depicted in the brutal fashion of a Leone western. "Any Gun Can Play" doesn't take itself as seriously as the aforementioned Leone masterpiece. The three leads jockey back and forth for supremacy. Each has a piece of the puzzle that will lead them to the treasure, but they refuse to share their information until the shoot'em up finale. Lenser Giovanni Bergamini's colorful widescreen photography is spectacular, especially the opening shots of the train chuffing along railway tracks with distant mountain peaks rearing up dramatically in the background. Another great shot occurs when Montero tests the Stranger's imperturbable calm. This scene happens after the Stranger has rescued Montero and the Mexican's minions arrive to save their chieftain's bacon. Confiscating the Stranger's six-gun, Montero takes aim at the poncho-clad tough guy and empties the revolver, placing his well-aimed bullets harmlessly in and around the unflinching gunslinger. Bergamini, who photographed Castellari's World War II thriller "Inglorious Bastards," frames the scene with the Stranger in the background and his pistol in Montero's hand in the foreground for a pleasing, three-dimensional style shot. Meanwhile, Francesco De Masi's lively orchestral soundtrack is as memorable for its own idiosyncratic melodies as Ennio Morricone's soundtracks were for the Leone westerns. The opening song is reminiscent of a 1950's Hollywood western with its catchy lyrics and guitar riffs. Although it isn't a major spaghetti western, "Any Gun Can Play" is always entertaining nonsense with interesting plot twists and good performances, especially the indefatigable Gilbert Roland who was 62 years old at the time!

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