Blu Review: A FISTFUL OF DYNAMITE Blows a Hole in the Western

The Wild Bunch famously opened with a montage intercutting the eponymous, doomed bandits arriving in town with images of children dumping a scorpion into the midst of a hill of fire ants, poking at the desperate scorpion as it was slowly consumed. Director Sam Peckinpah was spelling out his themes quickly, establishing at once that while this film would take a decidedly distinct track in how it approached the Western myth, it was no less mythic for that.

Released two years later, A Fistful of Dynamite (aka Duck You, Sucker! aka Once Upon a Time…the Revolution) opens with its protagonist pissing onto a hive of ants crawling over a tree. So.

If Peckinpah’s elegy to the West was shot full of melancholy, disgust, and a righteous fury, then Sergio Leone’s final Western instead comes from a place of bone weary exhaustion. Leone had rendered the West truly mythic with his Dollars trilogy, only to shred that work with Once Upon a Time in the West. But Dynamite goes one step even further than that film, attacking even the notion of heroism and idealism, packaged within the sort of playful epic off which Leone had made his name.

It’s a hell of a film, one that seems to largely exist off the radar of Leone and Western admirers. You would do well to pick up the special feature laden Blu-ray, newly available from Kino Lorber.

That ant-pisser I was telling you about earlier is shortly thereafter revealed to be Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger, hot off his Oscar win for In the Heat of the Night). Juan may play the role of a hapless, rotund peasant, but he quickly proves himself to be a wily bandit, making a fine living robbing the oblivious rich in turn-of-the-century, revolution-rocked Mexico, alongside his large family and gang.

Juan’s got himself a steady system, but his world is quite literally rocked when sudden explosions tear apart the countryside like the wrath of God. Out of the ash and smoke comes a cool-as-can-be Irishman by the name of John Mallory (James Coburn, sauntering out of explosions like he’s Tim the Enchanter), who is currently on the lam from Her Majesty’s Secret Service after his IRA escapades attracted a bit too much heat.

Juan sees John’s expertise in blowing copious quantities of shit up as a direct line towards pulling off the kind of heist he has always dreamed of, while John has little use for such small potatoes as this desert bandit, preferring instead to lend his skills to the revolutionary forces. The two eventually fall into a partnership to rob a bank, but of course things aren’t as simple as that and things get real bloody, real fast.

The best aspect of the film is this weird partnership/friendship that steadily grows between the two men, with neither party ever seeming aware that that’s what is happening. The earliest (and far away most fun) sections of the film deal with their odd courtship. The men’s initial, almost completely silent meeting is a thing of beauty, a mini-masterpiece of controlled storytelling of a kind that many, many others have attempted to emulate but only Leone truly seemed to master.

It’s during these early scenes that you can understand why Leone initially approached his The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly leads for another go-round in Dynamite. Juan’s motormouth bandit feels part and parcel with Eli Wallach’s Tuco, while John’s steely, largely silent demeanor is an obvious extension of Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name.

And especially during this early going, Fistful of Dynamite seems to be continuing on in that film’s current of cartoonish pulp exaggeration (side note: I want to make real fucking clear real fucking quick that this is not intended on a knock against Ugly, my favorite Western and one of my favorite movies ever made by anybody ever). Coburn’s character is introduced to us as a man who goes everywhere wearing a vest laden with nitroglycerin, so if anyone tries to kill him they end up pulverizing the map. Leone seems especially frisky during these early bits, between the outsized comedic nature of Juan’s family’s criminal trade (including a ‘funny’ rape joke that is just entirely regrettable) and the utilizing of montage in a way that feels lifted directly from Peckinpah’s work.

And had Dynamite been content to be a wackier riff on Leone’s earlier work, a victory lap after the 1–2–3–4 punch of genre-redefining excellence that was the combined might of the Dollars trilogy and the Once Upon a Time capper, I suspect that it could have worked well enough. But the casting of Steiger and Coburn re-shapes the film and gives it a different energy, an energy which pays off as Dynamite tunnels into deeper and darker directions than Leone’s earlier work ever dared.

(Side note: Swear to God I’m not trying to be cute with the alliteration, it just happened.)

Steiger and Coburn are alike in that both are trying out truly ludicrous accents (which doesn’t really matter seeing as audio in Spaghetti Westerns [outside of Ennio Morricone’s score {which, by the way, is absolutely PHENOMENAL this time out, somehow managing to be rousing yet evocative, perfectly suited to the film and yet often at direct tonal odds with the imagery on screen}] is always funky) and that both are very much imbued by Leone’s trademark framing. Coburn especially has a great laconic, heavy-lidded look that jives very well with both the sprawling landscapes and the languid pacing.

But both men also bring a true sense of weariness that give John and Juan different energy than Blondie and Tuco in Ugly. You can understand why Leone was frustrated that Steiger opted to play his role straight, when the director originally envisioned a more outsized persona for the bandit-turned-ersatz-revolutionary. Yet this more human Juan feels perfectly suited for the journey that unfolds over the course of Dynamite. The characters may look and talk like they strolled out of a penny dreadful pulp, but there’s an immediacy and vulnerability to the way Steiger and Coburn play their hurt that gives Dynamite a sorrowful, profoundly human undercurrent.

As the film progresses, that undercurrent takes over, and while Leone keeps upping the spectacle, the giddy thrills largely evaporate. Leone, playing fast and loose with history as always, draws from imagery from WWII to depict the mounting toll of the revolutionary movement, and the script is merciless in the way it puts the screws to the leading men. While Dynamite is thoroughly entertaining from first moment to last and never dips into a finger-wagging slog (Leone was far too much of a showman to ever fall into such a trap), there’s an ugliness and a hostility to Dynamite that was never present in his earlier films, not even in the most deconstructive moments in Once Upon a Time in the West.

If Dynamite trails behind Leone’s other Western masterpieces, it’s down to the lack a clear narrative engine to fuel the cat-and-mouse games. Once Upon a Time in the West and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly could certainly non sequitur like a motherfucker, but each film had an easy-to-grasp objective (build the railroad/find the gold) onto which Leone’s desperados and desperate souls could hang. Those films are shaggy, but Dynamite can sometimes feel slow, though Leone’s compositions and Morricone’s score paper over most any dry bits (actually now that I think about it, maybe what it’s really missing a great boo-hiss worthy villain, like Gian Maria Volontè or Lee van Cleef or Gian Maria Volontè. Dynamite’s heavy is a silent German guy who cuts a striking figure but has nothing to really sink his teeth into).

As has been mentioned, Dynamite remains one of Leone’s more under-recognized films, but the new Blu from Kino gives the film a royal treatment. Boasting commentaries from Alex Repo Man Cox and film historian Sir Christopher Frayling, the disc also comes loaded with featurettes about the making and legacy of the film, as well as the Trailers from Hell spot featuring Nicole Kidman’s old buddy Brian Trenchard-Smith.

By whatever title you know it by, A Fistful of Dynamite seems destined to remain a lesser-known entry in the all-too short filmography of Sergio Leone; but that just means that watching the film for the first time will continue to feel like a true discovery for any film fan that stumbles over it. Leone’s other films have been picked over and analyzed and ripped off over and over again, but Dynamite, weird and rowdy and dirty, will remain entirely its own thing.

Previous post Daniela Vega Is A FANTASTIC WOMAN
Next post KICKBOXER: RETALIATION is More Whimsical Than Expected