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Sergio Leone’s “Dollars Trilogy” – Review

11 Nov

There are a lot of different way to make a western film. There’s the more traditional ways that are often equated with actors like John Wayne and there’s also more modern and/or revisionist westerns that have been made by film makers like Sam Peckinpah, Quentin Tarantino, and Clint Eastwood. My personal favorite kind of westerns, however, are the Italian made spaghetti westerns. I like to compare spaghetti westerns to comic books since they’re usually colorful (with setting and characters), over the top, and often violent. The most famous of these films arguably make up Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy, which are A Fistful of DollarsFor a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Not only did these films help launch the careers of Leone and Clint Eastwood to new heights, but also plenty of other reasons that make these films classics and worth a review.

Let’s start with A Fistful of Dollars from 1964.

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In this film we are introduced to the now iconic character, the Man With No Name (Clint Eastwood), a wandering gunslinger who happens upon a small Mexican border town called San Miguel. What the Man finds in this town is surprising. San Miguel is a town that is under the clutches of two rival gangs. One one side there’s the Rojo family, who deal in liquor, and on the other side is the Baxter family, who deal in weapons. The mysterious gunslinger realizes a way where he can make a profit from both sides by playing each family against each other. While this is a great source of income, the Man learns by the local innkeeper, Silvanito (José Calvo), of the great stress that the two warring families have put on the town and the lives that have been lost in the process. This turns the Man’s mission of profit into a mission of protection and vengeance for the townspeople.

If you’re thinking that the plot for this movie is almost the same exact plot for Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 samurai film Yojimbo, you wouldn’t be the only one. The fact that this film was an unofficial remake to Yojimbo, without giving credit to that film as inspiration stirred up some controversy when it was released. To be fair though, Yojimbo was pretty much lifted from Dashiell Hammet’s 1929 novel Red Harvest. While A Fistful of Dollars seems to be taken from a couple different sources, the film still stands as a film that helped redefine the western genre.

Clint Eastwood’s performance as the Man With No Name is one of the most iconic in film history. It’s been imitated and parodied, but never has it been equaled. Not only is the Man a real tough guy and quick to shoot, he also shows a lot of compassion and has a great sense of humor. It’s really everything you look for in an archetypal hero like this. Sergio Leone’s direction also elevates this movie above many others in the genre because of the abundance of style thrown into it. Not only does it have western tricks and motifs, but also implements Eastern styles of film making like using close ups and quick zooms. Finally, this movie really wouldn’t be complete without Ennio Morricone’s controlled and melodic score.

So, in conclusion, A Fistful of Dollars stands tall as a classic of the western genre, but this review doesn’t stop there. After being pressured by the studios, Leone would go on to make a sequel, For a Few Dollars More released in 1965 overseas and in 1967 in America. Not only is this a great sequel, it’s a huge improvement over the first film.

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The wild west was the land of bounty hunters, and the people that matched the hunters in dangers were only the people that were being hunted. Problems also tended to arise when two bounty hunters vied for the same target, which is the case of the $10,000 reward on El Indio’s (Gian Maria Volonté) head. On one side there’s Col. Douglas Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef), an ex-soldier who was labeled the “finest shot in the Carolinas.” On the other side is the Man With No Name, aka Monco, a wandering gunslinger who can draw faster than you can blink. When the two bounty hunters wind up in the same town, it becomes quite clear that they would be more effective if they teamed up to take down El Indio and collect the enormous bounty on him and his gang.

This is a movie to get really excited about because you have to think about how cool A Fistful of Dollars was and add a bigger story with more larger than life characters and then you finally get For a Few Dollars More. This film perfectly builds on my describing spaghetti westerns as the comic books of the western genre. Monco and Col. Mortimer feel like superheroes the way they can hit their targets from so far away. Even the way they dress is symbolic to their characters. El Indio on the other hand is a perfect super villain since he can shoot almost as well as the two heroes and has a gang of henchmen surrounding him. Not to mention his over the top personality. This film is just a super entertaining and well made movie.

Ennio Morricone returns as composer for the film and the music is also a huge step forward. One song in particular is written and performed like something you would hear in a music box. That kind of composition reminds me of Morricone’s work for The Untouchables. This film is also the point where Leone found out just how skilled he was as a film maker and also strengthened his stylistic choices. Leone is known for his sound and editing, and there are many scenes in For a Few Dollars More that feature no dialogue, but only some sound or quiet music. This trademark would be perfected in the opening scene of Once Upon a Time in the West.

While A Fistful of Dollars is arguably one of the best westerns ever made, it can be debated that For a Few Dollars More may be one of the best films ever made. Believe it or not, things only get better with the third film of the trilogy. This is of course the 1966 film The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, which has become one of the most iconic films in the history of cinema.

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As the American Civil War ravaged the entire country, there were many people who did anything they had to to survive. Tuco (Eli Wallach) is a bandit on the run from law enforcement and bounty hunters that seem to be coming from every direction. Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) is a ruthless bounty hunter who will kill anyone of any age in order to complete his job and get paid. Finally, there’s the Man With No Name , aka Blondie, another bounty hunter, who along with his new partner Tuco, scam towns by collecting reward money and then escaping later on. As Tuco’s and Blondie’s partnership collapses, another monkey wrench is thrown into their lives: a rumor of hidden gold buried in cemetery. Blondie knows the grave and Tuco knows the cemetery, forcing them to once again work together. Unfortunately for both of them, the sadistic Angel Eyes also wants a piece of the gold and will stop at nothing to claim it all for himself.

While it can be argued that For a Few Dollars More is one of the greatest films ever made, I’m pretty sure that anyone who has scene The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly will agree that this is definitely one of the best movies ever made. Everything that I’ve said was great about the first two films are back for this one, but enhanced on such an epic scale. There are so many iconic moments that it’s hard to name them all. The destruction of a bridge strategically placed in the middle of a major Civil War conflict and the climactic Mexican showdown in the middle of the cemetery are just a few examples. The film’s themes are also as epic as the everything else you see. The catastrophic effects of war and how it shapes people trying to survive through it is a surprising theme for a movie like this, but there are scenes where it really can strike a nerve and get the emotions flowing.

When the film was first released in 1966, most critics gave it a lot of negative reviews because they were disgusted by how violent it was. Yeah, it’s violent, but like the other films in this trilogy it happens very fast and always has a reason. The only thing excessive about The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is the run time. Granted, I’ve only seen the extended version so I may be a little unfair. What isn’t unfair is my complaint that Angel Eyes doesn’t get NEARLY enough screen time. This film is also very episodic in nature, but watching the characters adapt to whatever strange scenario happens next actually builds up who they are more than you might expect. Finally, I can’t talk about this film without mentioning how Morricone created one of the most beloved film scores in the history of movies. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is a landmark of film making, and must be discussed whenever the topic of film history comes up. It truly is a masterpiece.

I could say so much more about the Dollars Trilogy and I might one day. For now, I just wanted to give an overview of it and try to explain why they are three of the most important films you may ever see. Leone completely deconstructed the western genre and turned it into something never seen before. If you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing these films yet, it must be done as soon as possible.

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Escape from New York & Escape from L.A. – Review

27 Sep

To me, John Carpenter is an amazing film maker. He’s made some of my favorite horror movies, like Halloween and The Thing amongst others. He’s also known for more action oriented movies like Assault on Precinct 13 and the comedic Big Trouble in Little China. One of his most respected action movies, and in fact one of the most respected movies of his career, is the 1981 film Escape from New York. This was a dark, dystopian thrill ride that was a major hit with audiences and critics alike, which is surprising that it took 15 years for the sequel, Escape from L.A., to finally be produced and released. While both of these movies have something good to offer, Escape from New York is a far superior film than its sequel… depending on what you’re looking for.

Let’s start with Escape from New York.

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In 1988, crime in America rises by almost 400% (remember this was made in 1981) forcing the government to create the United States Police Force and also convert Manhattan into a giant maximum security prison surrounded by giant walls. When terrorists force Air Force One to crash land inside the prison walls, the president (Donald Pleascence) finds himself stranded. Luckily for him, there’s a new prisoner about to be admitted, the notorious soldier and gunslinger Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell). Before all of the formalities can even be completed, Snake is tasked by New York Police Commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) to infiltrate Manhattan and save the president and in return all of Snake’s crimes on record will be cleared. As an added incentive, Snake is injected with a small explosive device that will detonate in 22 hours. Now with no other choice, Snake wages a one man war with the inmates of Manhattan.

What really grabbed my attention first was how Escape from New York looked. It is a minor visual masterpiece that perfectly sets the tone. From beginning to end, this movie is enveloped in darkness and fog and destruction. It’s exactly how a dystopian film should look. Of course, this was also done in a time before CGI, so this destroyed version of Manhattan is all just brilliant set design, miniatures, and matte painting. Speaking of design, I can’t go through this review without mentioning the iconic anti-hero, Snake Plissken. Kurt Russell growls his way through the movie and succeeds at playing one of cinema’s cult badasses. Not to mention that he was Konami’s main inspiration for Solid Snake in the Metal Gear video game series.

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There’s a simplicity to the story that has also grown on me. While there is something of a message behind the story of the film, the main focus is always Snake rescuing the president. There is a pacing issue that happens about 20 minutes into the movie where it sort of grinds to a halt, but it picks up speed soon enough and I was right back into the action. The movie is a little bit dated, but there are plenty of reasons not to forget it. The cast that I’ve mentioned before, along with Ernest Borgnine, Isaac Hayes, Adrienne Barbeau, and Harry Dean Stanton are all great as always. The film is also just an achievement visuals, character, and the fact that you don’t need a huge budget to make an influential movie. Escape from New York truly deserves its recognition as a cult classic.

After a sequel was written in 1985 and quickly dismissed as being “to campy” by John Carpenter, the official sequel was finally released 15 years later in 1996.

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After an earthquake in 2000 pretty much levels all of Los Angeles. The island that is created as a result is turned into a prison when a strict theocratic president (Cliff Robertson) is elected and implements a moral code that is enforced throughout America. When the president’s daughter, Utopia (A.J. Langer), is influenced by a terrorist in the L.A. prison, Cuervo Jones (Georges Corraface), she steals a device that can be used to control satellites orbiting the entire earth with the capability to shut down all forms of power sources on the planet. After once again being arrested and facing a life sentence in L.A., Snake is recruited to go into the prison, retrieve the device, and eliminate Utopia and Cuervo in exchange for his freedom and an antidote to a virus that has been injected into his bloodstream.

Think of this movie as the Joel Schumacher Batman movies compared to Tim Burton’s, except not as disastrous as Batman and RobinEscape from New York had a dark and brooding atmosphere, whereas Escape from L.A. is brighter, louder, and much more excessive. That being said, there’s some really fun action sequences, but there’s a lot missing from this movie. For one thing, Snake is pretty much turned into an indestructible hero, which pretty much takes away all sorts of suspense. The special effects in this movie are also… pretty awful. I mean, Independence Day also came out in 1996, so there’s really no excuse the effects in Escape from L.A. should be so weird. I can’t even say it’s because it had a low budget because it was a $50 million production.

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There’s still a lot of imagination behind a lot of the different prisoners and sets. Also, besides Kurt Russell and Cliff Robertson, there’s also cameos and supporting roles for Bruce Campbell, Pam Grier, Peter Fonda, and Steve Buscemi. It’s just really unfortunate that all of this imagination and great actors is sort of drowned out in excessive special effects, a lack of suspense, and noise. While the story does move a lot faster than its predecessor, I really missed the style, suspense, and tone of the first film. It’s also worth mentioning that the whole story is almost a perfectly recycled version of Escape from New York.  Escape from L.A. isn’t an awful film, but it’s far from being any real form of good.

John Carpenter’s Escape from New York and Escape from L.A. are two very different movies. His first film is a cult classic, and rightfully so, while the second one bombed when it was released and it’s still considered a bomb today.