Review for A Fistful Of Dynamite (AKA Duck, You Sucker!)
I have finally seen A Fistful of Dynamite on home video! That doesn’t sound like much of a statement, but when I say that after I first saw the film on TV broadcast, I quickly realised that it was my second favourite Sergio Leone western, an opinion only cemented when I finally ‘completed the set’ and saw Once Upon a Time in the West. Eventually, I got around to buying a copy of MGM’s Special Edition DVD for my dad, and while he has done his best to wear the disc out, I have yet to watch that version. So, after the better part of 15 years with that DVD at hand, I’ve just watched Eureka Entertainment’s Blu-ray release. The film is everything I was expecting and more, but the physical release leaves me in a bit of quandary.
A Fistful of Dynamite, Duck You Sucker!, Once Upon a Time... The Revolution, or Giù La Testa, its Italian title; this is as hard a film to categorise as it is to name. The commercial name is to tie it in with the Eastwood Dollars trilogy, although it bears little in common with the first two films. You could also place it somewhere in the Once Upon a Time trilogy, alongside In The West, and In America, and it does have the same sense of epochal events. It does sit better in between The Good, The Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West, very much another grand operatic Western, but in some ways, A Fistful of Dynamite also does its own thing.
Eureka Entertainment release A Fistful of Dynamite as a 2 disc set, with two versions, two transfers of the film to enjoy, and it’s this that causes my quandary. A Fistful of Dynamite/Duck You Sucker! is presented on disc 1 lasting 156:51. Giù La Testa is on disc 2 and it has a little more footage at 157:23. They are both decidedly the same film in terms of content.
Juan Miranda is a bandit with aspirations. Banditry in the middle of the Mexican Revolution is lucrative enough, with plenty of dispossessed Bourgeoisie to prey on, but Juan has visions of the bank in Mesa Verde, a golden edifice that he once saw as a child, and which tempts him and his family of bandits even still. His dreams seem more attainable the day he meets John Mallory, a member of the IRA on the run from the British. He’s an explosives expert, the kind of expert who would have no trouble in cracking a safe. Persuading him is one thing. The real problem is that in the middle of a revolution, Mesa Verde is now a garrison town under martial law.
For the purposes of this review, I watched the film on disc 2 in its entirety, sampling the film on disc 1. Incidentally, when you press play on disc 1, you get the choice between A Fistful of Dynamite and Duck You Sucker! As far as I can tell, the only difference is the title of the film in the end credits.
The film gets a 2.35:1 widescreen 1080p presentation, apparently the same as the US Blu-ray release from MGM, itself based on the same source as that DVD. The image is fairly impressive at first glance, rich with colour, stable, and with a nice level of detail. It’s once you get into the film that you begin to notice a filmic flicker, the grain isn’t too well defined, there is age and the odd fleck on the print and worst of all, the contrast is lacking, especially in darker scenes. Dark detail drops away, and blacks tend to grey. It’s a watchable presentation, and has one obvious advantage over the second disc.
The slightly longer version of the film is taken from a 2009 2k restoration by Ritrovata in Italy. This 2.35:1 widescreen 1080p print excels in almost every respect. The image is clear and sharp, detail levels are excellent; you can certainly see the difference when it comes to skin tone, and there is no apparent issue with contrast. I did notice a missing frame around the 79:20 mark, but in terms of stability and the pristine quality of the print, this was a big improvement. And it’s all undone by the colour grading. Disc 1 has the film with the original colour timing, and there’s nothing to complain about. But here, the film has a yellow colour timing that leaves it looking jaundiced. It’s liberally applied and without subtlety. Not a single blue sky is left in the film.
In an ideal world, we’d have the restoration quality of disc 2, with disc 1 colours. As for the film itself, it is pure Leone, plenty of epic landscapes and extreme close-ups. The production values are certainly high when it comes to sets, locations and costumes, and the cinematography is fantastic. The only niggle comes in a train stunt towards the end of the film, where the screen aspect is distorted.
The images in the rest of this review are sourced from the first disc. Here are five screen captures from disc 2 to contrast that.
Disc 1 offers you DTS-HD MA 1.0 Mono English with optional SDH subtitles and a signs only track for the screen text translations. Disc 2 has DTS-HD MA 1.0 Mono English, DTS-HD MA 2.0 Stereo Italian, with SDH subtitles, a signs only track, and a translated English subtitle track for the Italian version. I stuck with the English and was happy with a robust audio track. The dialogue was clear, and the action and Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack came across without issue. There was the odd moment of hiss, but not enough to hamper my enjoyment of the film.
The discs boot quickly to static menus.
Here you will find two commentaries, one with Filmmaker Alex Cox, and the other with Sir Christopher Frayling.
There are two new featurettes with this release, Kim Newman on A Fistful of Dynamite (21:11 HD), and Austin Fisher on A Fistful of Dynamite (20:53 HD).
The Myth of Revolution lasts 22:11 and is taken from that MGM release. This is in 720p.
Restoration, Italian Style is also an archival featurette (5:57 720p).
You get 3:45 of Radio Spots, and the Original Theatrical Trailer (3:34).
Sergio Donati Remembers lasts 7:20 and is in 720p.
Sorting Out the Versions lasts 11:36 1080p
Once Upon a Time in Italy lasts 6:01 1080i.
Location Comparisons lasts 9:31 and is in 1080p
Finally on this disc there are four Image Gallery slideshows, with a total run time of 30:28.
I haven’t seen the packaging, but the first run release will come with a 60 page booklet featuring four essays on the film, two from Simon Ward, and two from Howard Hughes, as well as plenty of appealing promo art and stills.
A Fistful of Dynamite is often considered to be Sergio Leone’s forgotten western, and it is easy to see why that is so, at least from a UK perspective. It’s 1970, and Leone comes up with a film where one of the protagonists, anti-hero though he may be, is an IRA bomber. No matter that the film is set in 1913, it’s not going to get a lot of play in UK cinemas. In 1988, the BBC banned an episode of Star Trek The Next Generation for a throwaway line suggesting that in a fictional future, the IRA had won. I can’t see UK filmgoers of the period connecting with the film, and that’s a shame, as it is one of Sergio Leone’s finest in the genre.
Just like The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, A Fistful of Dynamite tells a small, character based story set against the background of historic events, in this case the Mexican Revolution at the start of the Twentieth Century. This makes the film a Western with a twist, with electricity and cars and motorbikes, as well as horses and guns. Bringing in an Irish character to this Mexican world; starting the film with a quote from Mao gives the film a universality as much as its story does.
The story is simple too, a tale of a bank heist. Juan Miranda is a bandit who has eschewed politics and the revolution with the cynical acceptance that the ones talking revolution only make their revolutions real by spilling the blood of the poor and the uneducated. He’s focused on just getting as rich as possible, to feed his extended family/gang. He dreams of robbing the bank in Mesa Verde, having once seen it as a child and having been awed by its opulent extravagance. It’s just a dream until the day he encounters John Mallory.
John Mallory was with the IRA, but has fled his native land to avoid arrest by the British authorities. He’s an explosives expert, which renders all of Juan’s guns meaningless. But it also means that there is someone who can get into the safe in Mesa Verde without killing himself. Once Juan realises that, it becomes his life’s work to recruit John Mallory to his cause. John is a complex character. He looks to all intents like a man who has tired of revolutions, has left his past behind, and who wears a facade of fatalism that makes it clear that he wants nothing more to do with revolutionary fervour. But he has come to Mexico, a land in the middle of a revolution. He’s been offered a job working a silver mine, but Juan has other ideas, and what follows is a game of one-upmanship, as Juan keeps trying to get Mallory to team up with him and Mallory finds ever more inventive and destructive ways of saying no. What makes the film so compelling are the performances of the lead actors, both cast unexpectedly against type, Rod Steiger as Juan, and James Coburn as Mallory. You might blink for a few seconds at their respective accents, but that doesn’t really matter, as they are both electric on screen.
Of course when they do get to Mesa Verde, and find that it is a garrison town, they both wind up in the middle of the revolution that neither of them wanted to join, and they both keep getting drawn further in. That’s despite Juan having his cynicism about revolutionary heroes confirmed, especially when he gets lauded as one, and John finds himself experiencing the same things that so jaded him to the revolution back in Ireland. This film is certainly no ode to revolution. On the contrary, despite the action, despite the triumphalism and heroism on display, this seems more like Leone’s decrying the idea of revolution, of any kind of political change through violent means. As Juan repeatedly observes, it’s the common man that bleeds for revolutions.
If anything, A Fistful of Dynamite is the tale of a friendship. It’s more of a romance even, with two initially antithetical characters coming together, forging the bonds of friendship through adversity. You invest in the relationship between Juan and Mallory, enjoy that screen chemistry, and root for them to succeed.
I think it’s because A Fistful of Dynamite apes that approach of telling a small story painted against an epic background, just like The Good, The Bad and The Ugly that I rate it so highly. And other than that, the story is so dissimilar, the characters written in more complex and human ways that it’s certainly no copy or rehash. As for the release, I had this same problem with The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. I got the first MGM Blu-ray, despite its softer, inconsistent transfer, because the colours were authentic. It subsequently got a release with an up-rated transfer, better in every way except the yellow colour timing. It’s apparent that A Fistful of Dynamite has had the same treatment, but I’m torn between the authentic colours on disc 1, and the consistently higher quality on disc 2, despite the awful colour grading. It’s not as much of a turn off as I first thought it would be, and I may have to go back and give the newer TGTBTU transfer a chance.
A Fistful of Dynamite is my second favourite Leone Western. If you’ve missed out thus far, and that seems likely given its place in the Leone pantheon, you really should take this opportunity to rectify that. Of course if you’ve already seen it, you’ll know how good it is, and will have placed an order for this Blu-ray without the need for this review.