Saturday, October 18, 2008


Watching "Battlefield Earth" (*1/2 stars out of ****) is like sitting through a renegade Monty Python version of "Star Wars." Despite its $90 million budget, arty cinematography, and turbo-charged action scenes, this mediocre post-apocalyptic potboiler about ten-foot-tall aliens enslaving earthlings in the year 3000 never blends its die-hard heroics with its campy surrealism for maximum impact. While the straightforward humans struggle to reclaim their planet in this partial adaptation of author L. Ron Hubbard's blockbusting novel "Battlefield Earth," their egotistical and wholly overconfident alien foes blackmail each other for leverage to get off Earth. "Battlefield Earth" suffers from director Roger Christian's dramatically uneven helming and Corey Mandell and J.D. Shapiro's conventionally lowbrow script that boasts few surprises. This mock-heroic epic never generates much charisma for its dull hero, antagonism for its extroverted enemy, or excitement in the daredevil feats our heroes perform to defeat the villainous Psycholos.

Man tops the endangered species list, and the sexist, chauvinistic Psychlos are man's mortal adversary. These technically superior extraterrestrials conquered Earth in a battle that rages for just nine minutes. Afterward, they occupy the planet to plunder its mineral resources. Unable to breathe Earth's toxic air, the Psychlos wear small "Dune" like nose clamps that pipe their native oxygen through rope-sized hoses into their nostrils. They live inside a huge domed city (like the one in "Total Recall") filled with gas from their native planet. (Yes, humans must wear the same apparatus when they enter the city. Instead of breathing the potent Psychlo gas, they inhale regular earth oxygen.) Outside, nomadic tribes of buckskin clad humans that survived the Psychlo invasion live like their prehistoric ancestors. A smarter-than-average hunter, Jonnie Goodboy Tyler (Barry Pepper of "Saving Private Ryan"), refuses to accept mankind's subjugation.

As the chief of Psychlo security, Terl (John Travolta) dreams and schemes about getting back to his home planet. He believes his superiors will reassign him after they see the superb job he has done with a mining operation. Instead, they extend Teril's tour of duty on Earth indefinitely for his indiscretion with a Psychlo senator's daughter. Meanwhile, captured and caged in a zoo (as in "Planet of the Apes"), a defiant Tyler foments unrest against the Psychlos. An unscrupulous Terl risks death when he breaks the law to train 'man-animals' as miners. Ker (Forest Whitaker of "Phenomenon") and he have found a vein of gold they plan to steal secretly (shades of "The Mask of Zorro") by using earthlings instead of Psychlos to excavate it.

Terl connects Tyler to a holographic learning machine. The only other alien present in "Battlefield Earth" appears briefly as a tutor, and he is a sorry-looking specimen. Basically, images are beamed into Tyler's eyes, and he cannot move until the device is deactivated. Tyler learns to speak Psychlo as well as fly a Psychlo transporter. Later, Terl mistakenly believes Tyler is mining ore when our hero is really flying his rebellious cohorts, Rock (Michael Perron), Carlo (Kim Coates), and Robert the Fox (Richard Tyson), to an underground hanger stocked with Harrier jump jets. Miraculously, in seven days of sitting in an aircraft simulator, these cavemen learn how to fly a Harrier into combat against alien spaceships! In "Battlefield Earth," learning and mental clarity (the Scientology credo) pave the way for mankind's salvation and triumph over t heir cretinous, overconfident foes.

The acting and casting of the lead roles leave a lot to be desired. As the heroic Jonnie Goodboy Tyler, Barry Pepper is a competent actor, but he lacks personality. Pepper brings little charisma with him and does even less to bolster his character. He displays none of Luke Skywalker's innocence and not enough of "Mad Max's" vengeance. An actor with more celebrity status was definitely needed to enhance the hero's luster. John Travolta's villainous Terl overshadows him in every scene.

"Battlefield Earth" features one of John Travolta's worst performances. Although he plays Terl full-tilt, throttle wide open, as the obscenely vain, obnoxious Psychlo that he is, Travolta leaves no room for subtlety. He's too ham-fisted and doesn't register as much of a threat as a villain. Imagine Vincent Vega from "Pulp Fiction" with the attitude it would take to support the outrageous wardrobe and coiffure of the Psychlos and you have Travolta's histrionic performance in a nutshell. Travolta should have veered more to ruthlessness instead of buffoonery. Interestingly, Terl is the best looking of the Psychlos; everybody else appears grotesque, almost beyond the bounds of good taste.

Director Roger Christian had the right credentials to direct "Battlefield Earth." He helmed the second unit scenes for George Lucas on "Star Wars: Episode One: The Phantom Menace." Reportedly, Lucas told Travolta that Christian was the only director capable of handling the logistics of "Battlefield." Nevertheless, not even Christian can save "Battlefield" from bad looking aliens, rotten costume designs, and inept scripting. The only time he drums up suspense is when he uses their gruesome shadows to foreshadow the entrance of the Psychlos. Once production and costume designer Patrick ("Godzilla") Tatopoulos' aliens are unmasked, everything goes south. Further, these villains are too stupid and easy to defeat. A glance at the heavily-uniformed Psychlos in KISS platform shoes, dreadlocks, and goofy wolf paws is enough to make you laugh yourself silly. In all probability, Christian may have shot much of "Battlefield" in tinted blue noir lighting to minimize the hilarity of the Psychlo's costuming. Another major problem is the shifting tone that robs the film of any majesty. "Battlefield Earth" resembles "Lil' Abner" in space, shifting inconsistently from straight drama to comic relief. The scene were Tyler fight an obstinate earthling over the prison chow the Psychlos serve up amplifies this inconsistency. The aerial combat scenes lack punch. Finally, because so little is conveyed in the Mandell & Shapiro script about the aliens, we never truly get a sense of who they are and what they can accomplish.

If you walk into "Battlefield Earth" hoping to see "Star Wars," prepare to be disappointed.


The sophomoric 1927 Buster Keaton silent comedy "College" (**1/2 out of ****)lacks the overall creativity of "The General" (1927), "Steamboat Bill, Jr.," (1928) and "The Cameraman" (1928). Buster's gags and routines are tame compared with the three aforementioned epics. Nevertheless, "College" isn't a complete without merit. The irony, for example, is that the physically fit Buster plays a protagonist without any athletic ability until the villain endangers our hero's sweetheart. Like Charles Chaplin, Buster exploited incongruity as the source for his comedy. "College" is basically your boy wants girl, boy loses girl, and then boy wins girl nonsense.

"On the sunkist slopes of the Pacific where land and water meet—California" reads the opening title card. Rain pelts Union High School auditorium as people huddle under newspapers and umbrellas. The opening 10 minute-plus scene depicts Buster's high school graduation day "where the next step is either to go to college or go to work." Buster arrives at graduation with his mother. Although Ronald has brought an umbrella, his cheap $15 suit shrinks up on him as that he looks ridiculous. This gag and his problems closing an umbrella gag are clever and cute. This is the most non-traditional graduation because nobody wears caps and gowns. They had to otherwise everybody would have looked the same and we would never have seen Buster's suit shrink. All in all, this is the most thought out and calculated sequence in "College."

Mary Haynes—the heroine--has a memorable introduction. The male students remove several coats that they had generously allowed her to bundle up in to avoid getting drenched. She is described as "the winner of every popular contest in which the boys were allowed to vote. When she receives his diploma, the principal predicts that she will fit in at Clayton College as she did at Union High School. Star athlete Jeff Brown (Harold Goodwin) appears amid fanfare. He is described "as a man who loved exercise so much that he has made many a girl walk home." When the principal hands Jeff his diploma, he notes that Jeff took seven years to earn it. Lastly, the principal congratulates Buster for being "the most brilliant scholar." Of course, everybody laughs at Buster because his suit has shrunken so much that the buttons on his vest have popped off and his sleeves have retreated virtually to his elbows.

Buster alienates everybody at graduation with his anti-athletic speech. As the top student, he receives an honor medal. "The student who wastes his time on athletics rather than study show only ignorance." His words anger Jeff and the other fellows. "Future generations depend upon brains and not upon jumping the discus or hurdling the javelin." Mary (Anne Cornwall) criticizes Ronald. "When you change your mind about athletics then I'll change my mind about you." She rides away with Jeff.

Mary enters Clayton College. Neither Ronald nor his mother can afford the tuition, so Ronald looks for a job so he can work his way through school. He gets a temporary job as a soda jerk clerk. He carries a picture of Mary around in his suitcase and boards in the dormitory. The soda clerk job doesn't last long because Ronald is afraid that Mary will see him in such a lowly job and ridicule him so he quits.

Dean Edwards (Snitz Edwards) congratulates Ronald about his maturity. He praises him, "A boy like you can make this athlete infested college a seat of learning once more." Eventually, Ronald quits his soda jerk job when Mary enters the shop. Ronald decides he wants to take a try at sports. Ronald gets on the baseball team and his idiotic antics result in his team losing. Jeff and some guys catch him walking home from the disastrous baseball game and toss him on a blanket in the air. He sails so high that he can see an old battle axe dressing through her balcony window. Infuriated, she storms onto the balcony and swats at him with an umbrella. More umbrella buffoonery! He seizes the umbrella and floats up and down until he tears down a balcony and brings down the battle axe on it.

Ronald tries out for track and other related athletics and again fails miserably. Pay close attention to these shenanigans because they play an important part in the conclusion. Looking for work, Buster masquerades as an African-American in a restaurant. The black paint on his face smears off when he is serving Jeff and Mary on a date. When the blacks discover that he's an imposter, they run him off. Eventually, the Dean summons our hero to his office and complains about Ronald's failing grades. "I took up athletics because the girl I love thinks I'm a weakling," Buster explains in his own defense. The Dean requests that the rowing coach make Buster the coxswain on the rowboat team. The coach, however, has other ideas and he slips Buster a mickey. Things don't work out for the coach and the person intended to replace Buster gulps the potion. The photography for the boat rowing race is incredibly good. One of the boats has the semi-profane name 'Damfino.' This too must have been pretty risqué for its day.

Ultimately, Jeff shows his true antagonistic colors when he locks Mary in her dorm room and stays with her. She warns him that his being caught in her room will mean expulsion for both of them. Jeff points out that he has been expelled already. Mary calls Ronald for help and he responds with alacrity. The last nine minutes of "College" portray Ronald as an entirely different kind of guy and the ending is truly odd. Again, "College" is not top-notch Keaton, but it is worth watching and the DVD is available in a Kino International print on Genius Entertainment for under a dollar in some stores.


"Lady Gangster" (**1/2 out of ****)qualifies as a lively little World War II era B-picture about crime and punishment in America. The prevalent themes in "Lady Gangster" are women versus society, women versus men, and women versus other women. "Danger Signal" director Robert Florey and "Busses Roar" scenarist Anthony Coldeway have contrived a serviceable thriller based on the Dorothy Mackaye and Carlton Miles play "Gangstress, or Women In Prison." The attention to detail is above average. Florey stages a dandy little fistfight between the good guy and the criminals near the climax. Florey and Coldeway had to toe the line with the Production Code Administration in regard to their depiction of the heroine as an accomplice to bank robbers. Consequently, they make her somebody with whom we can sympathize. They provide her with a back story as a failed actress who turned to crime only as a last resort to survive. Moreover, they establish that she is not a career criminal.

"Lady Gangster" opens with Dorothy Burton (Faye Emerson of "Hotel Berlin") calling the cops and making a bogus complaint about a man with a knife. While the cops are responding to this call, Dot and three mobsters pull up to the Central Trust and Savings Bank before opening time at 10 AM. Dot emerges from the car with a small pet dog in her arms and convinces reluctant bank guard Jordan (Ken Christy of "Burma Convoy") to let her inside before regular hours. Dot lies to him that she has to make a deposit before her train leaves. While Dot sidetracks gullible Jordan, Carey (Roland Drew of "Manpower") and Stew (William Phillips of "Fort Yuma") slip inside with guns drawn and hold up the bank. Dot spots a cop outside hassling getaway car driver Wilson (Jackie C. Gleason of "Skidoo"), and she faints in Jordan's arms. Carey and Stew scramble for the getaway car and Wilson careens away. Initially, the police detain Dot as a witness. Later, Dot arouses the suspicions of a detective when she calls her dog by a name entirely different from the one on her pet's collar. She winds up in custody.

Dot's arrest incites the wrath of the Commodore Broadcasting Company. CBC radio commentator Kenneth Phillips (Fred Wilcox of "Notorious") takes the advice of his second-in-command (William Hopper of TV's "Perry Mason") to editorialize against District Attorney Lewis Sinton (Herbert Rawlinson of "Framed") because he arrested Dot since she could not accurately identify her dog. Meanwhile, on the advice of his second-in-command, Sinton phones Phillips and assures him that he is "willing and anxious to cooperate in every way" with him as well as let him question the Burton girl, all this despite the unflattering portrait that Phillips painted of him on the air as a crafty politician. Phillips persuades Sinton to release Dot into his custody.

On the pretext of getting her belongings, Dot visits Ma Silsby (Vera Lewis of "The Suspect") and learns that Carey refuses to give her a dime of her cut in the hold-up. Wilson doesn't think that Carey is treating Dot fairly. Ma alerts the gang that the authorities are nosing around outside. The guys stash the briefcase of dough under the front of a fireplace and lam out. Dot removes it and has Ma hide it in a safe place. She tears a dollar bill in two and tells Ma to trust only somebody with the other half of the dollar. Later, she informs Kenneth that she took advantage of his influence and she admits her part in the crime to Sinton. However, she refuses to identify her accomplices and disclose the whereabouts of the loot.

Twenty-one minutes into "Lady Gangster" our heroine enters prison. The warden, Mrs. Stoner (Virginia Brissac of "Jesse James"), explains the difference between an American prison and the Nazi variety. Says Stoner, "So the quicker you realize that this neither a country club nor a concentration camp, the better. It's up to the women themselves how they're treated. If you behave yourself, we'll meet you more than halfway, but if you want to be tough, we can be tough with you. Now, is that clear?" Dot meets Myrtle (Julie Bishop of "Northern Pursuit") and they become pals. Carey dresses up in drag and poses as Dot's sister to visit her. Dot refuses unequivocally to divulge the whereabouts of the forty grand.

Commenting about the luxurious prison facilities, Myrtle observes patriotically, "I'd play ball with anybody but Hitler to get out of this hole." Meanwhile, Dot runs afoul of inmates Lucy Fenton (Ruth Ford of "Wilson") and Deaf Annie (Dorothy Adams of "Ninotchka"). Deaf Annie reads lips. Dot confides in Myrtle that she has hidden the forty grand safely. Deaf Annie relays this news to Lucy. Before Phillips visits Mrs. Stoner to get her approval for Dot's parole, evil Lucy reveals to Stoner that Dot has the money stashed away. Stoner squashes the parole hearing after Lucy's revelation. Lucy turns around and lies to Dot that Ken wanted to trick her into revealing the location of the money in exchange for parole. Lucy completely fools Dot who gets a letter to Wilson about Ken and the money. Dot learns the truth from Mrs. Stoner who thanks her for giving her the reward money for the forty grand. Dot slugs Stoner, dons her apparel, and escapes from prison to save Phillips.

Clocking in at 62 concise minutes, "Lady Gangster" is a neat little item that shows how democracy worked during World War II on the home front.


The Anthony Hopkins & Chris Rock comedy espionage thriller "Bad Company," a slickly-made but superficial doomsday escapade about the CIA's war against terrorism, relies on utterly archaic clichés. Not only does "Bad Company" recycle the identical twin that steps into the shoes of the dead brother that he never-knew, but also the gray-haired spy master who must transform a rebellious rookie into a seasoned undercover agent with no time to spare.

Formula filmmaker Jerry Bruckheimer of "Armageddon" and "Black Hawk Down" provides a top-notch cast, atmospheric Czechoslovakian scenery, and a giddy Trevor Rabin orchestral score. Sadly, "Bad Company" lacks slam-bang, cliff-hanger heroics, an inventive plot and intimidating villains. Although director Joel Schumacher of "Batman Forever" (1995) and "A Time to Kill" (1996) keeps the throttle on the momentum wide-open, the second-rate Jason Richman and Michael ("6 Days, 7 Nights") Browning screenplay hampers him from drumming up enough suspense and tension. As far as Chris Rock fares, "Bad Company" surpasses last years' dreadful comedy "Down to Earth." Oscar winning thespian Anthony Hopkins has done far better cloak & dagger derring-do. Check out either "The Looking Glass War" (1970), where Hopkins taught another rookie spy tricks, or the Alistair MacLean epic "When Eight Bells Toll" from 1971. Nevertheless, the pleasure of watching Hopkins create a memorable character and the on-screen chemistry that he evokes with the abrasive but hilarious Rock makes "Bad Company" tolerably entertaining.

"Bad Company" opens in Prague. CIA agent Oaks (Anthony Hopkins of "Silence of the Lambs") and Pope (Chris Rock of "Lethal Weapon 4") are negotiating with black market Russian Mafia boss Adrik Vas (Peter Stormare of The Big Lebowski") to buy a nuclear bomb in a suitcase for $20 million dollars. Meanwhile, Vas' fearless rival Dragan Adjanic (Matthew Marsh of "Spy Game") and his multi-national suicidal hit squads want the bomb, too. First, Adjanic kills Pope. Second, Adjanic plants saboteurs in Vas' camp. Imagine Adjanic's surprise when he learns that Kevin Pope is alive and kicking in New York City! The CIA discovers that Pope had an unknown identical twin brother that authorities separated at birth. Jake Hayes (Chris Rock) suffered from a childhood illness that reduced the chances of his brother and he finding a suitable foster home, so an overzealous hospital attendant changed their names! Consequently, the brothers were split up permanently. When the CIA catches up with Jake, our hero has acquired a reputation as a chess-playing street hustler who scalps tickets. Jake agrees to impersonate Kevin for $100-thousand dollars. No sooner has Jake joined up than Adjanic's henchmen strike. Just when our heroes think that they have the situation in hand, the villains seize Jake's bride-to-be Nicole (Garcelle Beauvais-Nilon of "Double Take") and force a showdown in crowded Grand Central Station with the countdown clicking off seconds as they swap lead with each other.

First, neither creepy Peter Stormare nor gritty Matthew Marsh makes much of an impression as evil adversaries. Second, Jake never proves his mettle in combat. Third, Chris Rock's jokes are too few and far between. Fourth, the CIA blunders so badly you'll wonder if the title doesn't refer to them. Altogether, solid performances as well as a whirlwind pace serve to off-set "Bad Company's" monotonous melodramatic and hoary clichés.


Seasoned Spaghetti western cinematographer Massimo Dallamano who lensed both Sergio Leone's "A Fistful of Dollars" and "For A Few Dollars More" with Clint Eastwood as well as Ricardo Blasco's "Gunfight at Red Sands" with Richard Harrison settles into the director's chair with this rugged, violent Euro-western about revenge. "They Paid with Bullets: Chicago 1929" cinematographer Emilio Foriscot's evocative, widescreen camera work and "The Assassination of Trotsky" composer Egisto Macchi, who provides a traditional Ennio Morricone style orchestral soundtrack complete with vocals, make "Bandidos" (*** out of ****)both look and sound good. Scenarists Luis Laso and Juan Cobos have penned a fairly gripping outlaw opus about revenge. A grown-up student betrays his older mentor in this bullet-blasting Italian western about revenge. The villainous student maims his mentor permanently, but the stubborn mentor never relents in his efforts to square accounts with his murderous pupil. Laso and Cobos insert a surprising revelation about an hour into this lively horse opera that gives it a deft twist. "Bandidos" takes a cynical approach to issues involving life and death typical to most spaghetti westerns. Namely, life is as cheap at the bullet it takes to kill you. The only real flaw is that Cobos turns the tentative hero from the first hour into a hopeless victim and a secondary character emerges as the true hero.

"Bandidos" opens with a train conductor shouting: "We're doing you a favor," after he has thrown a man without a ticket off a Southern Pacific Company train. The conductor confiscates the guy's saddle for the company. Scrutinize this scene if you haven't watched "Bandidos" before because it figures prominently later in the plot. Yes, this is an example of an Italian western worth seeing twice! The conductor's triumph is short-lived. A trigger-happy outlaw, Kramer (Marco Guglielmi of "The Battle of El Alamein"), stabs him to death in the stomach not long afterward. The same gunman shoots both the locomotive engineer and the fireman in cold blood. Kramer halts the train. A lean, mean, unshaven Billy Kane (Venantino Venantini of "The Killer Likes Candy") and his cronies show up but show no mercy. They rob the passengers and then massacre them all without a qualm. Incidentally, the train is another of those Spanish engines modified to resemble an old West relic and the producers forgot to put a tender filled with either wood or coal behind the locomotive to fuel it.

One passenger gives them more grief than they had expected. He is a well-dressed individual in a white hat, Richard Martin (a mustached Enrico Maria Salerno of "Hercules and the Captive Women"), that we earlier saw polishing his Smith & Wesson revolver. He steps off the train to face Billy in a showdown. Billy surprises Richard and shoots his holstered six-gun off his hip with surgical skill. This amounts to Billy's calling card. The outlaw leader explains his indiscriminate homicidal urges, ". . . only beginners leave witnesses. I never do. Ain't wise. I don't like to have my picture up on walls and have people shoot me in the back to get a reward." Clearly, the train massacre distinguishes "Bandidos" from an American western where the villains would have worn bandanas. "Bandanas" wouldn't have made as commanding a title as "Bandidos." Nevertheless, despite this self-avowed philosophy, Billy lets Martin live. Instead, he shoots his mentor in both hands, crippling him so that he cannot wield a gun again. The chief problem here is that the hero behaves foolishly when he acquiesces to Billy's demand for a trackside showdown.

After an unspecified number of years, Richard Martin reappears, looking drastically different. An unshaven, cigar-smoking entrepreneur, he owns an itinerant, one-wagon, Wild West sharp-shooting sideshow. Since he cannot fire a six-gun, he relies on his fists in close quarters combat with his opponents. Martin has experienced his unfair share of woes. The first time that we see him after the train massacre, he is boasting to his crowd about his latest sharp-shooting sensation Ricky Shot. An armed spectator casually guns down his sharp-shooter without the least provocation. This is another example that sets "Bandidos" apart from the conventional Hollywood western. Martin attacks the gunman in a saloon brawl with his bare hands and an unidentified hombre pitches in on Martin's side. Later, the man (Terry Jenkins of "Paint Your Wagon") signs on as Martin's next sharp-shooting attraction Ricky Shot; Martin calls each sharp-shooter Ricky Shot. Later, we learn that the new Ricky is a fugitive on the lam.

Anyhow, Martin teaches him how to shoot, and they split the concession money fifty-fifty as they travel from town to town. Meanwhile, Kramer defects from Billy's gang, and Billy is hot on his trail. At the same time, Martin has tried to get money out of the treacherous Mexican bandit Vigonza (Chris Huerta of "Ursus, Son of Hercules") so he can kill Billy for him. Billy shows up in town and wounds Kramer in a saloon shoot-out. After Billy leaves town, Ricky arrives at the saloon where the wounded Kramer flaunts his six-shooter and talks defiantly. Ricky plugs him and then rejoins Martin. On their way to another town, Ricky proves that his marksmanship has improved when Martin and he happen upon three Mexicans that have just robbed a stagecoach. Ricky wipes them out with his swift, accurate shooting and they rescue Betty Star (Maria Martin of "Dr. Zhivago") and her saloon girls.

Director Massimo Dallamano and company have crafted an entertaining oater on a low budget. One famous Hollywood producer has been quoted in a book about "The Virginian" TV series as saying that a low budget western usually can afford to have only four horses drawing the stagecoach while an expensive western always has a six horse team hauling the stagecoach. "Bandidos" relies on a four horse team, but it doesn't look cheap. Nevertheless, this leather slapping saga belongs in the top 50 Italian oaters. Dallamano stages several neat shoot-outs. Altogether, "Bandidos" qualifies as an above-average Spaghetti western.


"Flying Leathernecks" helmer Nicholas Ray, the justifiably celebrated auteur of meaningful films such as "Rebel Without A Cause," "In A Lonely Place," and "Johnny Guitar," allows sudsy melodrama, pretentious writing, and ponderous pacing to sabotage his seldom exciting and altogether tedious World War II epic "Bitter Victory." The miscast but amenable Teutonic star Curd Jurgens of "The Enemy Below" and Welshman Richard Burton of "Where Eagles Dare" embark on a last-minute mission to raid Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's Africa Korps headquarters in Benghazi and snatch valuable Nazi documents. Meanwhile, the supporting cast contains future Hammer icon Christopher Lee as a British sergeant and top-flight supporting actor Nigel Green who appeared as a sly officer in Arthur Hiller's World War II thriller "Tobruk." Indeed, the semi-cynical "Bitter Victory" paved the way for Andre De Toth's "Play Dirty" (1968) to issue its full-throttle anti-war sentiments. Unfortunately, "Bitter Victory" generates modest excitement for a war movie. Ray handles the raid efficiently enough without any gratuitous gore and/or bloodshed, but he spends most of the time with the British survivors as they trudge through the desert arguing their separate philosophies about murder, morality, and war..

The British plan a raid behind enemy lines on Rommel's HQ to obtain vital information, but General Patterson (Anthony Bushnell of "The Red Beret") objects to the timetable. "I can't be expected to find the right man for this at twenty minutes notice." He selects Major Brand to lead the commandos. Brand is a professional soldier with fifteen years of military service and commando training. Brand's chief drawback, however, is he has been behind a desk for that decade and a half and never tasted combat. Reluctantly, Patterson also chooses a younger officer as Brand's second-in-command. Captain Leith knows the Libyan Desert from his pre-war years as an archaeologist. Leith has lived with the Arabs and speaks their language. Initially, the ill-mannered Leith grates on Patterson's nerves when he regards the operation as "very difficult" and gives it a "one in a million" chance to succeed. Nevertheless, Leith confides in Patterson's subordinate that he wants to go on the mission.

The primary trouble between Brand and Leith involves the sudden appearance of Brand's wife. Jane Brand (Ruth Roman of "Ladies Courageous") picks the wrong time to show up and kindle jealousy between her husband and her former lover. You see, Jane was dating Leith regularly before she married Brand. The Leith & Jane romance ended abruptly when Leith left her standing in front of the British Museum and went to Libya without a word, as when Bergmann abandoned Bogart "Casablanca" in the rain at the train station. Jane accuses Leith of 'cowardice' for leaving her. Leith replies, "All men are cowards, in some way." Anyway, Brand is jealous of his subordinate officer whom he believes his wife displays more affection for in public. Interestingly, Burton replaced Ray's original choice for the role--Montgomery Clift. Later, Leith makes the ironic remark: "I kill the living and save the death." Friction arises between them because neither respects the other.

During the traditional briefing scene around a model of Rommel's HQ, the men learn two planes will transport them near their objective. They will bail out and then they will march three hours to their destination. They will split into two groups and launch their attack. Ray doesn't show them parachuting from the plane. We hear the sounds of the planes flying away as the men collect their parachutes. Everything goes according to plan as our heroes slip into Nazi-held Benghazi at night disguised as Arabs. Once they reach the German occupied town, things go sour as Brand cannot stab a German guard and Leith performs the chore himself. Leith, from this moment on, criticizes Brand for his cowardice. The entire raid lasts approximately 5 minutes with another 5 minutes dispatching the Germans in pursuit. Our heroes capture a German colonel, and Brand orders Leith to remain behind with the wounded. The virus of mistrust and no respect infects the rest of the commando regiment, especially a wise-acre soldier, Private Wilkins (Nigel Green of "The Ipcress File") who exploits his skill as a safecracker to burglarize the German safe housing the documents. Three British soldiers are casualties of the commando raid, and things soon fall apart. Brand leaves Leith behind to care for two wounded soldiers. Eventually, Leith kills a wounded German, but he cannot kill the wounded Englishman. Instead, he loads the dying man on his back and marches away to catch up with Brand. The soldier curses Leith for being a coward and not killing him. The man that Leith carries dies from his wound. Leith chuckles ghoulishly when he learns about the dead man and observes, "I kill the living and save the dead." After Leith reunites with Brand and the men, he is bitten by an scorpion. Brand could have warned him, but he refused to for fear that Leith would expose him once they returned to camp as a coward.

Altogether, admirable as it is, "Bitter Victory" is a bit too bitter for my taste. The setting and the storyline about one British officer willing to kill or let another British officer die is clearly ahead of its time. The British maintained a stiff upper lip in the presence of movies like "Bitter Victory" and the far superior but historically inaccurate "Bridge on the Rive Kwai." "Bitter Victory" lacks the one quality that "Kwai" boasted: it was an artistic masterpiece. "Bitter Victory" has languished too long, but despite its poignant message, quotable dialogue, and top-notch performances, this is simply lukewarm. As a point of reference, "Bitter Victory" with contentions among its Allied heroes predated Raoul Walsh's adaptation of Norman Mailer's "The Naked and the Dead" that appeared a year later in 1958. Although I am no champion of this movie, "Bitter Victory" deserved better treatment from Columbia in this DVD release. Hopefully, perhaps, Criterion will intervene for the sake of Nicholas Ray's memory.


Teenagers thrive on science fiction and horror flicks because these renegade movies with their improbable pulp fiction plots appeal to youthful sentiments about alienation and the lack of power that juveniles wrestle with in an adult-dominated society. Not surprisingly, "Desperado" director Robert Rodriguez's clever but derivative creature feature "The Faculty," starring Elijah Wood, Robert Patrick, Salma Hayek, and Famke Janssen, ridicules those traditional authority figures—teachers, parents, and the police—who curtail adolescent curiosity. As scripted by "Scream" scenarist Kevin Williamson, "The Faculty" amounts to an entertaining but irreverent hodgepodge of "The Breakfast Club" meets "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" with a scene or two from "The Thing" grafted on for good measure. While adults may cringe at the messages that crop up, teens will revel in this spooky, sometimes scary spectacle. Inevitably, any movie celebrating a drug dealer as a hero is bound to arouse the wrath of either the PTA or the PTO.

The teachers at Herrington High School in suburban Ohio have started acting a little weird. Weird enough so that several students suspect aliens may have turned their faculty into puppets and are using them to stage a hostile takeover of not only their campus but also their town and perhaps even planet Earth. Of course, students have always felt that their teachers come from another cosmos, and "The Faculty" winks mischievously at this premise. Initially, nobody believes that anything adverse is occurring, and "The Faculty" unfolds like a hip 1990s' update of "The Blackboard Jungle" where the kids ruled the campus and the instructors were the casualties of an apathetic school board. An early scene invites such a comparison when Principal Drake (Bebe Neuwirth of "Jumanji") informs her burned-out faculty that only the football team will get any new funding. Everybody else will have to suffer. Forget those new computers for the classrooms; the drama teacher will have to recycle last year's sets, and kiss any field trips goodbye.

Things take an "X-Files" turn for the worst when Casey (Elijah Wood of "Deep Impact"), a geeky, non-entity that bullies love to bash, discovers an egg-roll shaped critter on the football field and lets his biology teacher, Mr. Furlong (Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show"), analyze it. Like a gremlin, this squirmy thing mutates after they dunk it in an aquarium. When Mr. Furlong sticks his hand in the tank, the things sprouts teeth and rips a chunk out of him. What the students don't know yet is that the critter has already assailed their hotheaded football coach, Dick Willis (Robert Patrick of "Terminator 2"), and that he has attacked the Principal Drake. Furthermore, this parasite thrives on water, and eventually the entire faculty cannot seem to gulp enough water. Basically, this critter slips into your ears and takes over your body, a variation on Jack Sholder's "The Hidden" (1987), but "The Faculty" parasite adds recruits to its zombie-like ranks instead of skipping from one host to another like "The Hidden." Insidiously enough, the alien parasite plans to use the popular Friday night grid-iron contest to boost its numbers.

Scenarist Kevin ("I Know What You Did Last Summer") Williamson populates "The Faculty" with a generic cross-section of high school types played by a talented young cast of fresh but little known faces. Shawn Hatosy brings humility to Stan, the star quarterback who quits the team in a fit of conscience to improve his grades. As his girlfriend Delilah, who heads the cheerleading squad and edits the school newspaper, Jordana Brewster of "The Fast & The Furious") is appropriately catty and snobbish. Delilah dumps Stan because his newly found academic efforts clash with her need for prominence. Wearing more make-up than Elvira, Clea DuVall of "Heroes" impersonates Stokely, a moody misfit unfairly accused of being a lesbian. Although Stokely isn't really gay, she adopts the persona because she refuses to click with the cliques. Meanwhile, Zeke (Josh Hartnett of "Halloween: H20") pedals drugs and taboo videos out of the trunk of his GTO, but he conceals more brain cells than any druggie could, especially when he duels with his English teacher about poetry. According to the script, his irresponsible parents have abandoned him, so Zeke has the run of his house. Finally, as Mary Beth, the new babe on campus, Laura Harris deploys her designing Dixie charms to ingratiate herself with even the most dispossessed. No matter what she does, just about everybody shuns poor Mary Beth.

Nothing is either as simple or as straight-faced as it first appears in Kevin Williamson's ingenious script. Although the kids have found a cure, they must solve the mystery of who was first infested so that they can kill the parasite and free everybody. Complicating matters is that the alien's army of zombies is multiplying like crazy, and the enemy has our heroes surrounded, outnumbered, and perhaps even infiltrated. Predictably, too, Zeke's stash of narcotics runs low, and the kids have to run a gauntlet of zombies to grab what little drugs remain to destroy it. Director Robert Rodriguez generates sustained suspense as our heroes struggle to outfox the elude the alien spawn and rarely lets the momentum flag.

Bristling with atmosphere, issues, and surprises, "The Faculty" qualifies as a witty, rip-snorting, reptilian chiller that never takes itself seriously. Good paranoid thrillers that keep audiences guessing up to fade out are few and far between. Indeed, the characters get the short shrift, but action rather than characterization propels "The Faculty" to its nail-biting finale. Nevertheless, the filmmakers offset the lack of character development with cinematic and literary references to genre classics. Stokely and Casey engage in an illuminating colloquy about sci-fi literature and point out that Robert Heinlein's "The Puppet Masters" beats Jack Finney's "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" to the book racks. On the other hand, they reveal that Hollywood has exploited Finney more frequently than Heinlein. Even if you abhor horror movies, you might be able to tolerate this playful, well-paced hellraiser.

FILM REVIEW OF ''DEAD RUN" (1967-European)

Scenic European locales enhance the authenticity of writer & director Christian-Jaque's "Dead Run," an international tale of espionage and intrigue based on a Robert Sheckley novel about an elusive French pickpocket that happy-go-luck, neatly coiffed CIA agent Peter Lawford pursues across the continent to recover important documents. Not only is the CIA hot on the pickpocket's heels, but a criminal syndicate also wants him for the same reason because the thief stole those valuable CIA papers from them after they pinched them from the CIA. The harmless hokum provides suitable diversion and its travelogue scenery is easy on the eye. The violence isn't sadistic and nobody gets naked.

"Dead Run" unfolds in Berlin one morning as petty thief Carlos (Georges Géret of "Is Paris Burning?") picks a drunkard's pocket, discovers nothing of value, and then tries to break into a locked car. Two plainclothesmen park in front of the building where Carlos is trying to break into the car. Moments later after these plainclothes guys enter the building, an ambulance wheels in behind their car, and three attendants in white outfits emerge with a stretcher. One tries to scare Carlos off, but Carlos hangs around outside. Across the street, a wealthy, auburn-haired tourist, Suzanne Belmont (Ira von Fürstenberg of "The Vatican Affair"), who has absolutely nothing to do with any of these characters appears. Inside, the ambulance attendants gun down the plainclothesmen and then assault another guy with a black leather briefcase chained to his wrist that the plainclothesmen were shepherding. Cutting the chain, the attendants steal the briefcase. When the attendants appear on the street again, the same one who got tough with Carlos whips out a knife. Carlos and he struggle, and the thief snatches the briefcase and a brief chase ensues, but Carlos escapes from them. Suzanne spots a plainclothesman staggering out of the building. CIA Agent Stephen Dain (Peter Lawford of "Sergeants 3") arrives and learns about the eye witness. Dain halts Suzanne's Frankfurt jet before it takes off. Meanwhile, Carlos takes the briefcase to a fence and haggles over his percentage of the haul. Carlos opens the briefcase with a blow torch, but he finds on paper documents with TOP SECRET stamped on them.

Dain escorts daffy Suzanne to headquarters. She identifies one of the attendants that she saw leaving the building before a wounded CIA man staggered out and collapsed. Dain explains that an international outfit that specializes in stealing secret documents pulled the job. However, the thief who got away with the briefcase was an amateur and the CIA doesn't have a photo of him in their database. "Would you remain at our disposal until this man is found?" Dain fires up a cigarette and points out: "You're the only one who can identify him for us." "It's so nice to be essential," Suzanne observes. She explains to
Dain that she is rich. Dain adds, "It might take some time and it could be dangerous.” Suzanne doesn't mind, "I have plenty of time. And you will protect me, won't you?” Dain reassures her that he will personally stay with her in her room.

The scene shifts to the villainous Bardieff (Werner Peters of "36 Hours") in his office fuming with rage. "Six months of effort! The plan perfect in every detail! A deadline for delivery! And what have you done, gentlemen! Completely messed up the job! Tricked by some poor little thief. Get out!" After he dismisses his henchmen, Bardieff consults his ruthless contract killer Manganne (Horst Frank of "The Grand Duel") and learns that the man who carried the briefcase told Manganne nothing under duress before he died. Of course, Bardieff laments the loss of life. Manganne retorts, "Since when is death not the normal rational outcome of torture?” The 60-year old fence sends Carlos to meet Van Joost (Peter Lorre look-alike Luciano Pigozzi of "Codename: Wild Geese") at a Swiss jewelry store. After Carlos leaves, the fence contacts immigration and spills his guts to Police Inspector Noland (Wolfgang Preiss of "Raid on Rommel") as part of a deal to recover his passport. The fence has a shady past with a prison record, too. As it turns out, Noland works both sides of the street. He informs Bardieff about Carlos' whereabouts. Manganne visits Corsage. Meanwhile, one of Dain's CIA operatives tails Noland. At the jewelry shop, Swiss cops ask Van Joost where they may hide while they await Carlos' arrival. When Carlos arrives, Van Joost scrawls 'police' on his hand and Carlos flees. The trigger happy Manganne, who works for Bardieff, kills Corsage because the elderly fence "knows too much.” When Noland objects to Corsage's murder, the sadistic Manganne shoots him without a qualm.

Carlos eludes Dain and the Swiss authorities. Carlos jumps aboard a train departing for Paris. When the conductor sells him a ticket, Carlos comes up short on cash, but a girl sharing the compartment, Anna (Maria Grazia Buccella of "After The Fox"), lends him enough money. It seems Anna once worked as a knife thrower's target in a circus. She teams up with Carlos in Paris after he fails to sell the papers to Julien (Bernard Tiphaine of "The Queen of Spades"), an ignorant, low-level American embassy official. Julien jokes that too many people are trying to sell secrets to American embassy officials. Instead, Julien recommends that Carlos contact the Soviets in Vienna. Since Anna is thoroughly acquainted with Vienna, Carlos takes her with him to Vienna. While Carlos is on the train, Dain stops his car in the middle of nowhere in the country and smooches with Suzanne. Arriving in Paris, Dain and Suzanne part company temporarily while Dain meets up with an American General (Roger Tréville of "How to Steal a Million") and Julien. The character of the General appears in only two scenes and we’re never told about his relevance to the story, except that he knows Dain and is evidently a member of the American embassy. When the General inquires about Dain's business, Julien realizes the enormity of his error in dismissing Carlos' offer.

An hour elapses before Dain tangles with Bardieff’s henchmen in a Paris garage and Julien takes a dive down the stairs when a thug slugs him. Dain deals with the thug that punched out Julien but misses his train to Vienna with Suzanne. Suzanne climbs aboard the train and winds up in the same compartment with Carlos and Anna. Meantime, Carlos mixes it up with another of Bardieff's numerous henchmen on the train and Carlos throws him off it. While Suzanne is napping, Carlos and Anna slip off the train and walk into Vienna. Meanwhile, Dain takes a jet and hooks up with a woman in Vienna who works for a mysterious criminal named Klaas. Klaas qualifies as a stereotypical criminal kingpin (Siegfried Wischnewski of “Three Penny Opera”) who traffics in illegal narcotics. The police keep Klaas under constant police surveillance and Klaas doesn’t let anybody but women visit him. Either you follow Klaas’ orders to the letter or you suffer the consequences. Klaas allows only women to call on him so that the police believe he is only indulging his passion for female companionship. Anna arranges a rendezvous through an old acquaintance in Vienna who knows Klaas and has suffered Klaas’ wrath for not following the criminal’s protocol. Klaas’ henchmen threw acid in Anna’s friend’s face and he is blind. He tells her that he can see things better. Little do they know that Klaas’ right-hand lady is working with Dain!

“Dead Run” qualifies as lightweight but interesting espionage. No, we never learn the contents of the state secrets that Carlos stole from the opposition and the Soviets never enter the fray. Clocking in at 92 minutes or thereabouts, “Dead Run” maintains its headlong momentum without turning gruesome despite its violence. "Dirty Game" lenser Pierre Petit captures the immediacy of the moment for Jaque with lots of Dutch tilt angles. Indeed, "Dead Run" appears to have been lensed on the run, and Petit's agile cinematography heightens the excitement. Of course, when they reach Vienna, we get to hear a musician playing a zither in an obvious homage to British director Carol Reed’s The Third Man” (1949) with Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton. The final quarter hour in Austria bristles with knuckle-sandwich fistfights, bloodless shoot-outs and a surprise ending. Nimble-fingered Carlos has the last word in this above-average but minor melodrama. Peter Lawford walks through the role of CIA Agent Stephen Dain without a care in the world except for the cigarettes that he chain smokes with abandon. Horst Frank makes a splendid villain and has some great comeback lines. Only moviegoers that enjoy European spy thrillers will appreciate this lightweight nonsense.


Many American leading men trailed Clint Eastwood to Europe during the heyday of the Spaghetti western in the 1960s and 1970s. Reportedly, not only did Lee Van achieve superstar status on the continent, but he also surpassed Eastwood's popularity in westerns. Burt Reynolds took top billing in Sergio Corbucci's "Navajo Joe," about a revenge seeking redskin. Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson tangled in Sergio Leone's "Once Upon A Time in the West." James Coburn and Eli Wallach anted up for a couple of oaters. Most American stars were either solidly established or whose careers were riding the rails to the big sundown, such as Guy Madison, Rod Cameron, Stewart Granger, John Ireland, Yul Brynner, etc. Surprisingly, lightweight leading man James Garner crossed the Atlantic for "War & Peace" producer Dino De Laurentiis to star in a savage western "A Man Called Sledge" with former "Combat" star Vic Morrow at the helm. Fellow "Combat" alumnus Frank Kowlaski co-scripted "A Man Called Sledge" with Morrow. This formulaic shoot'em up saga qualifies as James Garner's most unusual role. "Maverick" star James Garner shunned his affable image to play against type as a no-holds barred outlaw who is clearly on the wrong side of the law. Dennis Weaver of "Gunsmoke," Claude Akins of "Return of the Seven," and "Colt .45" star Wade Preston fleshed out the "Sledge" cast along with fellow Americans Ken Clark and Tony Young. Shot on location by seasoned lenser Luigi Kuveiller against the sheer, raw beauty of Spain, this frontier western adventure told a tale about greed and revenge. Essentially, "Sledge" emerged as an impossible heist western, similar to director Don Taylor's "The 5-Man Army" (1969) with Peter Graves and James Daly.

"A Man Called Sledge" opens--in Sergio Corbucci country--with Luther Sledge (James Garner) and Mallory (Tony Young of "Taggart") robbing a stagecoach on a snowy mountain trail. During the hold-up, the shotgun guard chucks his weapon. Incredibly, a freak accident--that neither Sledge nor Mallory anticipated—occurs. The shotgun discharges and kills the driver. Talk about coincidence! Sledge and Mallory make off with the loot to a secluded saloon known as 'the 3 Ws. They feel awful about the accidental death of the driver. Sledge has come to meet his girlfriend Ria (Laura Antonelli of "Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs") and he joins her upstairs in a room. Overconfident Mallory decides to play poker. "You're the worse poker player I ever saw," Sledge reminds Mallory. Ironically, Mallory wins hand after hand. Triumphantly, as he gathers his fortune, Mallory observes, "I just made a killing," and evil Floyd (Ken Clark of "Attack of the Giant Leeches") shoots him in the back. Sledge stumbles down the stairs and finds Mallory dead on the floor. Floyd and his cohorts ridicule Sledge. Sledge whips out Mallory's pistol and guns them both down. An old man (John Marley of "Love Story") witnesses the gunfight. Later, Sledge intercepts him in Rockville and suspects him for being a bounty hunter. The old man goes berserk after Sledge trusses him up so he cannot watch an escort of 40-armed riders take a gold payroll into a nearly prison for safekeeping. He explains that the riders lock up the gold—usually about $300-thousand worth—in the prison vault overnight before they continue to the clear house.

The old man recounts his prison days. "I never could sleep when that gold was next to me. You know gold gives off a scent. It's like an animal or a man. Paper money don't throw off a scent. Paper money don't whisper to you like gold does through six inches of steel." Sledge decides to steal the gold, but Ward (Dennis Weaver) and Hooker (Claude Atkins) are leery about the heist. Similarly, Sledge reveals a lot about himself when he says, "I ain't kidding myself that it is the last. I'm gonna finish my life with a white picket fence and the little woman making biscuits. Me sprouting gray like a tree in the fall. I wanna go out with a bullet in my head or a rope around my neck. I want a little taste of living before I go." Sledge and company follow the gold from mine to prison but find no flaw in the security precautions. They ride into Rockville for supplies and the Old Man poses as a head of a westbound family and an arsenal of weapons. "I feel like one of those Eastern war profiteers," Sims confides in Rockville Sheriff Ripley (Wade Preston) that the Old Man bought "enough firepower to save Custer. When Ripley enters the store, Sledge pokes a gun in his back. Another gunfight erupts and a Sledge man dies in a murderous crossfire. After the death of one of their own, Ward and Hooker are really reluctant about the gold shipment robbery, until Sledge devises a daring plan. Since they cannot take it from the outside, Sledge proposes to take it in the prison. Ward poses as Deputy Marshall and gains entrance to the prison because he has Sledge in his custody. They put Sledge in solitary with the rest of the other loonies and Sledge breaks out with Ward's help. Morrow generates considerable suspense in solitary with their breakout. The way that Sledge gets out of being taken by Ripley to the Rockville City Jail is clever, too.

Thematically, "A Man Called Sledge" concerns greed and the song 'the Curse that Follows Other Men's Gold' sums up the action. Everybody is after somebody else's gold, and greed consumes them to the point that nothing else matters. This western boasts some irony so that the action contains greater depth. Mallory wins at cards but loses his life. Audaciously, Sledge engineers a way into the worst prison in the Southwest where the authorities would dearly love to maintain him. Later, he ties a cross to his hand so he can fire his gun. "A Man Called Sledge" qualifies a gritty but entertaining Italian western!

FILM REVIEW OF "COLT .45" (1950)

"Tall in the Saddle" director Edwin L. Marin's predictable law and order oater "Colt .45" with Randolph Scott and Ruth Roman is just the kind of western that the National Rifle Association would applaud. Consider the film's foreword: 'A gun, like any other source of power, is a force for either good or evil, being neither in itself, but dependent upon those who possess it.' In other words, guns don't kill people, rather people abuse guns and kill people. "Colt .45" epitomizes this theme. "Cattle Queen of Montana" scenarist Thomas W. Blackburn has created a storyline that encapsulates the foreword. Basically, the villain steals the hero's six-shooters, and the hero must recover them because the villain's use of the revolutionary six-gun is besmirching the company.

"Colt .45" opens with former U.S. Army Captain Steve Farrell demonstrating a pair of six-shooters to Sheriff of Bonanza Creek. Farrell touts the revolvers as 'the finest guns ever made.' Farrell swears by them himself and he has used them. While Farrell is telling the sheriff about the advantages of Colt .45s, Jason Brett (Zachary Scott of "Mildred Pierce") complains that he doesn't want to have to hear Farrell's pitch. The sheriff tries to hush Brett up. The lawn has already arranged for the departing stagecoach departing to transport the unruly Brett out of the county. Farrell walks away momentarily from the pair of display pistols in a case on the sheriff's desk when Brett scuffles with the lawman, seizes the six-guns, and blasts away at everybody. The town citizens pour into the sheriff's office in time to see Brett on his way to the back door. Before Brett skedaddles, he incriminates Farrell as his partner. The outraged citizens grab our hero and lock him up. Later, the circuit judge advises the sheriff that he must release Farrell because he has no reason to hold him.

Farrell is anxious to hit the trail and nab Brett. Between the time that Brett escaped and Farrell's release, the gun thief has held up a stagecoach, lone rider on the trail, and settlers camping out. Brett assembles a gang of gunslingers to ride with him and settles down in Bonanza Creek to prey on the stagecoaches carrying gold shipments. At one point, Brett and his gunmen kill several Indians and then masquerade as redskins to waylay the stagecoach. Farrell finds one of the Indians, Walking Bear (Chief Thundercloud of "Badman's Territory"), while he is still alive and sends him packing on his horse. Next, Farrell catches a ride on the stage. Brett's Indian imposters strike the stage and Farrell climbs down inside the coach to return fire. He finds Beth Donovan (Ruth Roman of "Strangers on a Train") and she protests at what he is doing. They argue, but Farrell manages to gun down six of the outlaws. Brett pulls his gang off the coach. When Farrell helps the surviving driver, he discovers a scarf attached to the stage and accuses Beth of warning the outlaws about the gold shipments. When the stage arrives in Bonanza Creek, Farrell convinces Sheriff Harris (Alan Hale of "Desperate Journey") to make him his deputy so that he can get to the bottom of the lawlessness that the Colt .45 gang has created.

As it turns out, Sheriff Harris is corrupt and he is Brett's accomplice. Beth is passing along information about the gold shipments because he believes that Brett will kill her husband Paul (Lloyd Bridges of "High Noon") if she doesn't continue to help him. Farrell and the Indians capture two of Brett's men. The following day the outlaws are put on trial out in the street with a judge presiding. Brett's hides his Colt .45s and rides into town with his gang. Brett implicates Farrell because Farrell has the only pair of Colt .45s in the county. Naturally, Sheriff Harris goes along with Brett who is posing like an upstanding citizen. Walking Bear rescues Farrell from a lynch mob. Meanwhile, Paul and Beth had fallen out with each other after she learns that he was a member of the Brett gang all the time. Beth hates Brett and she rides to town about the same time that the judge is holding court out in the street and tries to warn Sheriff Harris. Beth's husband has no qualms about gunning her down. Walking Bear and Farrell hightail it out of Bonanza Creek and Farrell scoops up Beth and takes her along. Later, Sheriff Harris and a posse show up at Walking Bear's village, but the chief refuses to turn Farrell and the wounded Beth over to him.

"Colt .45" qualifies as a B-movie western that clocks in at a trim 74-minutes, and Marin doesn't squander time. Interestingly enough, when our hero Farrell settles down to the business of rounding up the Brett gang, he changes into a totally black outfit. Scenarist Thomas W. Blackburn keeps Farrell scrambling from the moment that Brett pinches his pair of Colt .45s and playing catch-up until the last six minutes of the action. Zachary Scott makes a convincing ruthless killer. During his final fisticuffs with Farrell, Brett digs his fingers into the knife wound that our hero received from the hands of Brett's henchmen. Apparently, since Beth was deluded into thinking that her husband's safety was in jeopardy, she is allowed to switch sides and she is punished for her collaboration with the villains. Fans of actor Randolph Scott will enjoy this straightforward, no-nonsense western, but it suffers when compared to the later westerns that Scott made for director Bud Boetticher and director Andre de Toth.


"The Sicilian Clan" stands out as a quality, first-rate heist thriller from veteran French director Henri Verneuil. No stranger to urban big-time crime sagas, Verneuil helmed exciting, memorable films such as "Any Number Can Play" (1963), "The Burglars" (1971), and "Fear Over The City" (1975). This slickly-made melodrama about the underworld and the plotting of a major heist caper stars three heavyweight dramatic Gallic thespians; namely, Jean Gabin of "Grand Illusion" (1937), Alain Delon of "Red Sun" (1971), and Lino Ventura of "Three Tough Guys" (1974). Verneuil directed these icons of the French cinema previously in "Any Number Can Play" and "Greed in the Sun" (1964). What sets this superbly lensed movie apart from earlier crime thrillers is its exploration of the traditional 'crime doesn't pay' theme. Aside from an opening escape from a police van, most of the action in this complicated thriller is fairly realistic and incredibly suspenseful.

A notorious cop killer, Roger Sartet (Alain Delon of "Le Samourai"), convinces the head of a Sicilian crime syndicate, Vittorio Manalese (Jean Gabin of "Action Man"), to mastermind his escape from police custody in exchange for the plans to an international jewelry show that could net millions of dollars worth of ice for the clan. Vittorio's sons slip Sartet a compact-sized drill as he is about to be turned over to prison authorities. During the loud, noisy bus ride through congested Parisian streets to the lock-up, Sartet not only unlocks his handcuffs but also he cuts a hole large enough in the metal floor of the van to slip through it. Vittorio's sons arrange for a traffic jam and Sartet crawls from the prison bus to their van. Immediately, a hard-nosed cop, L'inspecteur Le Goff (Lino Ventura of "The Valachi Papers"), warns Sartet's sister Monique Sartet (Danielle Volle) to contact him if Sartet calls her. He reveals to her that all of her phones are being tapped and that she is under constant surveillance. Nevertheless, Vittorio arranges for Sartet to inconspicuously meet his sister despite the police surveillance. Sartet explains that he shared a cell with a disgruntled husband who killed his wife's lover after he returned from installing a complex alarm system to a jewelry show. Although Vittorio has carefully run his syndicate for years and is planning to retire to Sicily with his wife, he cannot resist this enticing job and he calls up an old friend in New York City, Tony Nicosia (Amedeo Nazzari of "Spy Today, Die Tomorrow"), a Mafioso with connections, to meet him in Rome. Together, they case the jewelry display and verify everything that appeared in Sartet's plans. Moreover, they discover a new alarm that prevents them from stealing the jewels. They tear up a $100 dollar bill, part company, and tell each other if they can figure out a way to pull off the crime that a man will show up with the other half of the C-note. Meanwhile, a confined Sartet causes no end of trouble for Vittorio because Sartet wants to get laid after two years of going without sex. Le Goff and his men nearly catch Sartet with his pants down in a brothel, but the cop killer stages a miraculous escape. Eventually, Nicosia sends the man with the other half of the C-note and Vittorio and his sons set up the plan to steal the priceless jewels. At the same time, unbeknownst to either Vittorio or his sons, Sartet has a sexual liaison with Aldo Manalese's sexy wife Jeanne (Irina Demick of "The Longest Day"), one day when she is bathing and Sartet is bashing an eel to death on the rocks. Vittorio's grandson catches them in the act, but Jeanne swears the child to silence. Later, this infidelity comes back to haunt both of them, but not before Sartet accompanies Vittorio on the heist, scheduled to occur after the syndicate skyjacks the jetliner transporting the ice. The entire NYPD crowds Kennedy Airport and awaits the villains when the plane touches down in the Big Apple. However, the mobsters have an ace up their collective sleeves.

Director Henri Verneuil quiets builds up atmosphere and momentum in this old-fashioned heist caper and pays off all the narrative set-ups without pulling out anything that he had not foreshadowed from the outset of the story. The acting is top-notch and the photography, apart from the hijacked jet landing, is terrific. You have to be patient and wait for the inevitable to happen in "The Sicilian Clan," but it is well worth the wait for all the revelations that occur in the end. Ennio Morricone, who scored all of Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns, provides an interesting but inconspicuous score that beautifully and economically underlines the twists in the plot.

***************SPOILER'S ALERT************************

In "The Sicilian Clan," the villains successfully pull of their caper, but they have an 'honor among thieves' falling out that results in their dying or getting sent to prison. Generally, speaking before the 1966 James Coburn caper "Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round," the criminals never got away with the loot. Here, the French and American criminals fool the cops entirely and get away with the booty. However, the French criminals pay with their lives after the crime because of Jeanne's marital infidelity.


‘Spaghetti western’ is a synonym for over 800 movies that appeared from the early 1960s to the late 1970s as a sub-genre within the American western film genre. The nickname is derogatory since it became an easy way to distinguish these oaters from the American variety. In truth, Spaghetti westerns were Continental westerns because more than just Italians made them. Usually, ‘Spaghetti westerns’ were cowboy movies produced by Italians, Spanish, and Germans. Occasionally, westerns from the Soviet bloc countries appeared, and “Lemonade Joe” from the Czech Republic came out in 1964. This western was basically a parody of the singing cowboy cycle of westerns produced before and during World War II in the United States. The Andalusia region of Spain, specifically the Tabernas Desert of Almería, served as the primary setting for these dusty sagebrushers, usually with fading American stars in the lead roles and Europeans fleshing out the other roles. Interestingly enough, the first film shot in Spain as a western that wasn’t Italian. Instead, the British production company Hammer Films—known best for their “Dracula” and “Frankenstein” movies—co-produced “The Savage Gun” (1960) with the Spanish and it is considered the first ‘Spaghetti western.’ Michael Carreras directed this shoot’em up with American stars Richard Basehart and Alex Nicol in the starring roles.

Afterward, the Spanish made several “Zorro” westerns and the Germans—adapting the novels of the Teutonic western novelist Karl May's Winnetou series—released several oaters with either British star Stewart Granger or America actor Lex Barker of “Tarzan” fame as the leads. The Winnetou westerns resembled pre-World War II westerns because they dealt with the relationships between whites and Native Americans on the frontier. Again, incredible as it may seem, the Europeans had been making westerns since the silent film days, and the Germans made westerns in the 1930s that looked like the American westerns with Gene Autry, except the plots were more adult and the dialogue was blue with profanity. A number of westerns that were chiefly imitations of American westerns were made between 1962 and 1963. Peplum director Sergio Leone changed everything with his low-budget western “A Fistful of Dollars” in 1964 starring an obscure American TV actor named Clint Eastwood and most westerns after “A Fistful of Dollars” were about the least sentimental character in the western genre—the bounty hunter—who roamed the west killing criminals with a price on their head. The Europeans were crazy about these westerns. Leone followed up his success with “For a Few Dollars More” (1966) with veteran Hollywood villain Lee Van Cleef joining Clint Eastwood in a duel of the bounty hunters plot. Lee Van Cleef’s popularity soon surpassed Clint Eastwood in Europe and Van Cleef made a string of successful westerns about a mysterious gambler/gunman named “Sabata.” Eventually, by the 1970s, the Italians stopped making serious shoot’em ups and turned to parodies, such as director Enzo Barboni’s “They Call Me Trinity” and “Trinity Is Still My Name.” Ironically, Enzo Barboni prompted Sergio Leone to watch the Japanese film “Yojimbo” about a wandering samurai warrior that inspired Leone to remake “Yojimbo” as “Fistful of Dollars.” Not to be outdone by the success of the “Trinity” movies that made obscure Venetian actor Mario Girotti into a superstar in Europe and especially in the southern United States, Leone produced “My Name is Nobody” with Mario Girotti who took the stage name of Terence Hill.

Sergio Leone's "Once Upon A Time in the West," a.k.a. "C'era una volta il West" (**** out of ****) qualifies as one of the all-time great westerns. Indeed, hands down, it ranks as the greatest Spaghetti western. This tale about railroad expansion in the old West holds its own against the best domestic westerns of prestigious American directors John Ford, Anthony Mann, Robert Aldrich, John Sturges, Budd Boetticher, and Henry Hathaway. Essentially, “Once Upon a Time in the West” is about the death of the west because of the coming of the railroad. The cast is first-rate with iconic western star Henry Fonda playing-against-type as a cold-blooded killer while gimlet-eyed heavy Charles Bronson wears the boots of the hero for a change. In between, Jason Robards is splendid as a bearded gunslinger named Cheyenne who has his own gang of killers, and Claudia Cardinale as the up-rooted New Orleans prostitute who comes west as a mail-order mail bride for Frank Wolff, usually a villain in Italian westerns. Although it clocks in at a mammoth 165 minutes, "C'era una volta il West" never wastes a minute in telling its vast story, complete with flashbacks. Sergio Leone surpasses anything that he did in any of his Clint Eastwood westerns. The complex screenplay by horror director Dario "Suspira" Argento, Bernard "Last Tango in Paris" Bertolucci, Sergio "The Big Gundown" Donati, and Sergio Leone contains several epic set-pieces that will never be equaled by anybody. Moreover, it features a sprawling plot. Ennio Morricone's orchestral score, which was finished before the first foot of film was shot, is a legendary in its own right with some unforgettable melodies.

The day that Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale of "The Professionals") comes west from New Orleans to join Brett McBain (Frank Wolff of "God Forgives, But I Don't") at his house in the middle of nowhere, she arrives to find tragedy awaiting her. Ironically, the McBain house is located on a site called “Sweetwater,” but the water is anything but sweet when Jill shows up for a spectacle of horror. Brett, his two sons, and his only daughter are laid out on the very tables that Jill was to share a picnic welcoming her to their home. As it turns out, Frank (Henry Fonda of "Fort Apache") and his duster-clad henchmen show up ahead of Jill and massacre the entire McBain family. One of Frank's henchmen accidentally calls Frank by his name just as McBain's youngest son comes running out of the house. "Now that you've called me by name," Frank observes, pulls out his six-shooter, revolver and does something that never happens in westerns. He guns down the kid! Nobody but Sergio Leone would have had the balls to pull this off with one of America's greatest heroes masquerading as the epitome of evil. Moreover, the death of the child provides a transition to the arrival of the train with the whistle serving as the edit point.

Charles Bronson plays an enigmatic gunslinger called ‘Harmonica’ who keeps his six-gun tucked snugly in his waistband near the base of spine. He plays a harmonica like you have never heard a harmonica played. Whenever Harmonica (Bronson of "Red Sun") utters a word, it sounds like a classic line. In fact, there isn't a bad line of dialogue in the entire movie. Harmonica meets Cheyenne at the same time that Jill encounters him at a remote stagecoach station in the middle of John Ford's Monument Valley. Jill is on her way to meet the McBain's when the driver pulls up for a drink. Inside, Jill asks about a bath and the proprietor (Lionel Stander of "Beyond the Law") tells her that only three people have used it today. Altogether, she inquires contemptuously, or one at a time. About that time, Cheyenne (Jason Robards of "Hour of the Gun") makes the grandest entrance of everybody. A fusillade of gunplay sounds before he stumbles into the way station, gulps at a jug, and then has a man shoot off his shackles while he holds a gun on him. It seems that Cheyenne was being escorted to Yuma Prison but he got the drop on his captors and shot his way out. Harmonica takes a special interest in Cheyenne’s men and observes that he was met recently at the Cattle Corners railway depot by three men in dusters. Dusters were long leather coats that westerners wore that usually draped to their ankles. He adds that inside the men wearing the dusters were bullets. Cheyenne refuses to believe Harmonica because nobody has the ‘guts’ to wear dusters because everybody knows that only Cheyenne’s men wear them. Eventually, it comes out that Frank has tried to pin the death of Harmonica on Cheyenne.

Sergio Leone pours more style and substance in these 165 minutes than you can stand. There isn't a single thread of the plot that is left dangling (unless you watch a cut version of it on AMC) and everything fits together like a puzzle. "C'era una volta il West" was the first Spaghetti western to be filmed partially on location in the United States. The film is an indictment of big business, meaning the railroads, and railroad tycoon Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti of "On Her Majesty's Secret Service") serves as a visual metaphor for the corruption in the railroads with his bone cancer that forces him to walk with crutches or an overhead grid of poles that he can lower to enable him to walk around his railroad coach. Morton dreams of reaching the West coast with his railway. Frank acts as Morton's right-hand man and both men understand each other all too well. Without one the other could not exist.

Repeatedly, Leone serves up a flashback that has a younger but just as villainous Frank munching on an apple and sauntering through the desert with a sadistic grin on his face. Frank's idea of a good time is to hang the brother of one man by forcing him to stand on his little brother's shoulders. The older brother hangs only after the younger one has collapsed from the exhaustion of holding brother up. Before Frank leaves Harmonica with his older brother standing on his shoulders to his fate, the blue-eyed gunslinger tells Harmonica, “Keep your loving brother happy.” At that point, Frank wedges a harmonica between Harmonica’s teeth. It is only a matter of time before Harmonica can no longer hold up his brother and as Harmonica collapses under the weight of his brother, he blows a sour note through the harmonica that becomes a recurrent musical motif throughout the film. Harmonica grows up and embarks on revenge to kill Frank. One of the common characteristics that most ‘Spaghetti westerns’ share is the theme of revenge.

"C'era una volta il West" contains some of the coolest shoot-outs ever staged on-screen. “Spaghetti westerns’ made a ritual out of duels. The opening shoot-out at the isolated water stop—Cattle Corners--along a railroad in the desert is classic with three gunslingers waiting for the train to arrive. Jack Elam catches a fly in his gun barrel and listens to it buzz as a way to soothe his soul. Woody Strode stands under a water tower and lets water drip off it and collect in the rim on his Stetson. Al Mulock as 'Knuckles' cracks his knuckles in ways you could never imagine. This scene goes on and on and then Harmonica arrives and the showdown commences. There is another interesting shoot-out aboard a train as Cheyenne systemically kills the gunslingers in the train. At one point, he sneaks up on one gunman. Actually, the gunman thinks that he has the drop on Cheyenne because he sees Cheyenne’s boot descending in front of the window. It appears that Cheyenne is trying to climb from the roof of the moving train and enter the coach through a window without anybody knowing it. The gunman waits as the boot slides down the window and then the toe of the boot turns towards the gunman. An explosion erupts from the toe of the boot, and we watch in surprise as Cheyenne pulls his pistol out of the boot and scrambles back atop the moving train. The gunman turns to the camera with a bullet between the eyes and falls dead. In terms of scale, “Once Upon a Time in the West” looks immense. The scene when Jill gets off the train at Flagstone and waits for her husband to pick her up is simply incredible as the camera follows Jill and then ascends to show the entire town on the far side of the train depot. Leone loves to poke fun at some characters. There is a character named Wobbles (Marco Zuanelli) who is ridiculed because he wears a belt and a set of suspenders to hold them up. Just before Frank guns him down in cool blood, he observes that he cannot trust a man who doesn’t trust his own pants. Each of the main characters—Harmonica, Frank, and Cheyenne—interact with Jill. Frank wants to kill her. Cheyenne wants to love her. Every time that Cheyenne meets Jill at the Sweetwater home of Brett McBain, he asks her has she made coffee. Anybody who likes Spaghetti westerns must see "C'era una volta il West." The lip synchronization is 100per cent on the money with no discrepancies. The photography is flawless and costume design is marvelous. Interestingly, the closest that most Hollywood westerns can to the long, dark, duster coats that Leone's gunslinger sport were the rain slickers. "C'era una volta il West" was a smashing success overseas but a resounding flop in the United States. Since its’ debut in 1968, “Once Upon a Time in the West” has attained cult status and many famous directors call it an inspiration.


The extraordinary thing about director Leslie Fenton's "The Saint's Vacation" is that RKO Studio produced this black & white thriller in England during World War II. For whatever reason, however, the filmmakers made no mention of the war. Apart from the use of exterior stock footage, such as the train hurtling along the countryside, RKO filmed "The Saint's Vacation" entirely on interior sound stages, even the outdoor scenes. Later, the characters gather at Dover on the pier and much later on they discuss a Paris stopover during a cross-continental trip. Obviously, neither an excursion to Paris nor catching a ship at Dover would have been possible under wartime conditions. Mind you, by this time, Nazi troops had occupied Paris, and British subjects would never have been permitted to sail in hostile waters without a Royal Navy escort. Nevertheless, despite the fact that the British had been battling Hitler since 1939, RKO Studio lets the action play out with no references to the war. In the final scene, one character does mention the War Office, but he doesn't make reference to the war. Most likely, postwar audiences that have watched "The Saint's Vacation" probably thought it was filmed either before the war or after it, not during the darkest hours before the war turned in the favor of the Allies in 1942. Another interesting thing about this modest "Saint" film is that author Leslie Charteris penned the screenplay from his original novel "Getaway" with "Sanders of the River" scenarist Jeffrey Dell.

Monte Hayward (Arthur Macrae of "Silver Blaze") panics at the last minute as his butler and he pack his luggage for a trip abroad. Not only is Monte in a lather because his close friend Simon Templar, (Hugh Sinclair of "The Saint Meets the Tiger"), a.k.a., 'The Saint,' hasn't arrived for their 11:30 AM departure, but also because nosy journalists are bugging Monte about the whereabouts of the Saint. .Indeed, the Saint surprises Monte by sneaking in through the fire escape to avoid the journalists staking out Monte's front door. Interestingly, RKO conceived the series as a man who operates on the fringes of the law. The Saint has a shady reputation, but British authorities appear to have granted our hero some kind of dispensation, perhaps because of the war. Detectives in the George Sanders' "Saint" movies were always trying to lock him up. Anyway, Monte is adamant that Simon and he enjoy a quiet, uneventful vacation. "Remember, we're going away on holiday. We're not going to get mixed up in anything." Simon agrees, but they decide to go their separate ways until they meet on the ship so that they have thrown the news hounds off their trail.

Eventually, to the chagrin of the press, the Saint avoids the journalists and sneaks aboard the ship wearing a fake mustache and beard. He removes both mustache and beard as they watch from the pier. One reporter refuses to concede defeat so readily. "Gazette" writer Mary Langdon (Sally Gray of "Dangerous Moonlight") takes a plane to catch the Saint. Again, during wartime, she couldn't hire a plane on such short notice and brave the Luftwaffe infested skies over Europe. She catches up with the Saint in Switzerland at a hotel. "She thinks you're up to something," vigilant Monte warns the Saint about Mary. She brightens visibly when she meets Simon in the hotel. Mary explains, "So much depends on this. If I don't get a story, I'm through." Once again, the comings and goings of the Saint supersede anything about the war. "Don't you think you could rake up a little trouble somehow," Mary pleads. "I don't mean anything drastic, of course." No sooner has Mary uttered these words than the Saint stumbles upon a mysterious woman in black, Valerie (Leueen MacGrath of "Pygmalion"), who is mixed up with a man named Gregory. After she rebuffs the Saint, Valerie meets with Gregory (John Warwick of "The Desperate Man") and bundles off into the night in a hired car. Not long after, Gregory is pursued by the villain, Rudolf Hauser (Cecil Parker of "The Ladykillers"), who wants something that Gregory has. Later, we learn Gregory possesses a small music box concealed in a larger wooden cigar box. The Saint and Rudolf play a game of cat and mouse over this mysterious little box. At one point, the Saint sneaks into Rudolf's mountainside castle in Switzerland by riding on the rear bumper of Rudolf's car. Rudolf's last name implies Teutonic origins, but no mention is ever made about his ancestry or nationality and neither play a role in the story. At one point, Rudolf convinces the Swiss authorities to arrest the Saint and imprison him, but the Saint makes a deal for his freedom with Rudolf.

"The Saint's Vacation" boasts several fistfights and shoot-outs, with one of them in a British train as Rudolf steals Gregory's music box from Royal Mail bags. Unfortunately, the Saint's life is never in jeopardy, and neither the Swiss authorities nor the villains pose much of a threat to Templar. The mystery about the contents of the music box is solved in the last scene. The revelation that the metal cylinder in the music box contains a blueprint of the electric circuit for 'the best sound detector in the world' is at best bland. Tall, lanky, urbane Hugh Sinclair with his clipped mustache qualifies as a passable Saint. He is rather handy with a revolver and he knows out to get himself out of close scrapes. He isn't as suave as either George Sanders or Tom Conway in the pre-war "Saint" sagas or the postwar "Saint" escapades. Arthur Macrae is good at acting flustered throughout the twists and turns of the plot. Sally Gray and Leueen MacGrath are pretty distractions, and Cecil Parker is ideally suited as the gruff villain Rudolf. Mary replies that the Saint may have to marry Valerie. Altogether, the derogatory term potboiler pretty much sums up this lukewarm RKO production.


Westerns are rare on the big-screen these days. Hollywood cranks out fewer than a handful each year. Most are either the modern day kind like the Cohen Brothers’ “No Country for Old Men” or the hybrid variety like Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood.” Basically, westerns had worn out their welcome long before Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” won the Best Picture Oscar in 1992. Most westerns inherently depict white supremacy on the frontier. Sure, whites alone did not settle the old West, but Hollywood usually confined its tribute to white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestants pioneers. Indeed, as the sun began to set on the genre in the 1980s, the western found itself out of step with our multicultural society that embraced political correctness.

Writer, director, & actor Ed Harris’ new horse opera “Appaloosa” (**** out of ****) resembles those predictable but satisfying 1950’s westerns with Gary Cooper, Fred MacMurray, Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea, George Montgomery, and Rory Calhoun. This beautifully lensed law and order western dramatizes the themes of camaraderie, honor, sexual politics, and corruption. In other words, “Appaloosa” is very formal and old-fashioned. In some instances, the Robert Knott & Ed Harris screenplay takes a different tack, particularly in its depiction of frontier dames. Moreover, Harris has assembled a splendid cast, including Viggo Mortensen, Renee Zellweger, Jeremy Irons, Lance Henriksen, and Timothy Spall, that looks comfortable in a 19th century setting.

Seasoned lawman Virgil Cole (Ed Harris of “The Rock”) and former U.S. Calvary officer Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen of “Hidalgo”) have known each other for twelve years. Hitch narrates the movie at the beginning and talks about how that he first met Virgil and bailed him out of a scrape with his double-barreled, eight gauge shotgun. Afterward, they ‘partnered up in the peacemaking’ business. Since then they’ve made a career of taming tough towns. Everett doesn’t foresee any changes. He is in for a surprise. Sure enough, unforeseen changes alter their lives. They ride into the desolate New Mexico Territory in 1882 after Virgil’s good friend Marshall Jack Bell (stunt man Robert Jauregui of “Posse”) and his two deputies died trying to serve warrants at the Bragg Ranch. Randall R. Bragg (Jeremy Irons of “Dead Hard with a Vengeance”) rules the territory like a despot. The citizens of Appaloosa are weary of his tyranny. Bragg and his drovers have been taking anything they want without paying. They have even killed a man from Chicago and raped his wife.

As the film opens, Appaloosa City Marshall Bell and his deputies ride out to Bragg’s ranch. When Bell’s deputies try to arrest the suspects, Bragg blows them slap out of their saddles with his Winchester before they can brandish their own six-guns. Meanwhile, the train deposits in Appaloosa an alluring widow woman, Allison French (Renee Zellweger of “Leatherheads”), who plays the piano as well as she plays with men. Virgil takes a shine to her. Eventually, one of Bragg’s men, a younger cowhand, informs on his boss. Cole and Hitch sneak out to Bragg’s ranch and abduct the rancher for the trial. The judge sentences Bragg to swing by the neck, and Virgil escorts him via train to the hanging. Things take a turn for the worst. Gunslinger Ring Shelton (Lance Henriksen of “Aliens”) kidnaps Allison and threatens to blow her brains out if Cole doesn’t release Bragg. Reluctantly, Cole capitulates, but Everett and he hit the trail after them with bloody results. Good villains make good westerns. Randall Bragg is a cold-blooded dastard from the start and cheats the hangman through an interesting turn of events.

“Appaloosa” qualifies as a traditional town taming tale. Virgil and Everett face the usual quota of tough-talking showdowns and sudden death shoot-outs with outlaws as well as hostile reservation jumping Apaches. The Indian encounter labels “Appaloosa” as a traditional western rather than a postmodern sagebrusher like “Dances with Wolves.” On the other hand, the depiction of women is revisionist. Prostitutes win greater respect than the stereotypical good woman. “Appaloosa” lacks the score of “Silverado,” looks more like “Pale Rider.” Although our heroes are tall and dark, they are far from silent when they aren’t swapping lead with their opponents. Not only do they engage in chummy conservations, but they also make amusing comments about the heroine and the villains. While the action is the standard fare, a clever undercurrent of humor permeates Appaloosa” and that makes it more than a typical dustraiser. Indeed, in some respects, Viggo Mortensen and Ed Harris capture the cowhide chemistry of Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott in Sam Peckinpah’s immortal classic “Ride the High County.”

“Appaloosa” represents four-time Oscar nominee actor Ed Harris’s sophomore venture behind the camera as a director; he starred in and helmed “Pollack,” (2000) a biography about the famous American painter Jackson Pollack. Harris puts emphasis on period detail in “Appaloosa” and directs the action without calling attention to his technique. A moment stands out when an iron horse locomotive chugs through the arid, sun-baked territory and a large mountain cat saunters into view. The cougar sniffs the air, and watches the train diminish in to the distance. Indeed, it amounts to just a mere moment in time, but it conveys a wealth of atmosphere. Western fans may recall a 1964 Marlon Brando oater called “The Appaloosa” about Mexicans that stole the eponymous pony and Brando tracking them down. This “Appaloosa” has nothing to do with the venerable Brando movie. Harris and Knott drew their screenplay from Robert B. Parker’s novel. Compelling dialogue, realistic situations, subtle humor, and strong performances, especially from gimlet-eyed Ed Harris, make “Appaloosa” a hypnotic horse opera.