Category Archives: Action/Adventure

Avengers: Infinity War (2018, Anthony Russo and Joe Russo)

Avengers: Infinity War has quite a few significant achievements. Special effects, for example. But the two most salient ones are Josh Brolin’s performance (of a CG character, no less) and the pacing. Directors Russo and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely do an extraordinary job juggling the large cast and various storylines, which start splintered, then come together. But it’s the tension is the thing. The film opens with the introduction of a countdown clock, with the literal fate of the universe in the balance–the introduction’s both to the audience and the majority of the characters–and with that threat, the countdown is always present. There’s always more tension they can ratchet as things get more and more dire. It culminates in big finale, of course, with lots of moving pieces needing to sync up for that finale to work. But the most impressive thing is when, at around an hour and fifty minutes into the film (which runs two and a half hours, albeit with a questionable ten minute end credit sequence before the Marvel movie post-credits teaser), it becomes obvious they aren’t going to have time to wrap it up. The film’s so good at maintaining intensity, so good at latching on to the characters’ determined hopefulness, when defeat becomes visible and probable… it’s a shock. Even though there can’t be much other outcome, given the movie can’t really go on forever, can it?

Even if one of the big finale twists is a bit of a cheat since it relies entirely on something the audience (not to mention the characters) have any idea is possible.

Of course, what’s possible is what’s in question in Infinity War. Giant blue space alien (Brolin) is searching for six “infinity” stones, which–explained in a first act lecture to the audience (and Robert Downey Jr.)–will allow him to remake reality. Brolin starts the movie fighting with Chris Hemsworth out in space, but then goes off on his own storyline–arguably the film’s most successful, though it’s got limited competition and is the only consistent arc (thanks to Brolin’s shockingly good performance). How Brolin’s not just able to bring depth to the CG giant–which has far better CG than when Mark Ruffalo hulks out–also in terms of how he never gets caught up in the gooniness of the whole thing. Directors Russo play the whole thing straight–one of their greatest touches is treating Infinity War like an impromptu trip through the galaxy–but it wouldn’t work without Brolin. Everyone else who has to deal with the gooniness? Well, either it gets worked through like with Downey, Tom Holland, and Benedict Cumberbatch or utterly avoided like with Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson. Hemsworth is somewhere in the middle. He spends most of the movie with Bradley Cooper’s CG wiseass mercenary raccoon and straightfaces it through the gooniness. Everyone else in his scenes is CG (they also bring along the talking tree “voiced”–or audio filtered–by Vin Diesel).

Anyway. With Brolin, there’s gravitas in the fantastical alien stuff. With Downey’s plot line or Evans’s, there’s not. Even with Downey on a space ship hurtling through hyperspace (presumably, otherwise the Marvel universe is real small), no one wants to get too bogged down with the logic. Hemsworth, hanging out with Cooper and the rest of the Guardians of the Galaxy crew, acknowledges the existence of the fantastical without wanting to deal with it. It’s a wise move from the filmmakers. The Russo Brothers get better performances out of Galaxy regulars Chris Pratt and (especially) Zoe Saldana than their feature movies ever suggested possible. Though Pratt’s still way out of his depth opposite Downey, which is made even more clear when Holland and Cumberbatch are able to keep pass. With Holland even surpassing Downey, in no small part thanks to Downey’s acquiescence. They have a wonderful rapport.

The storylines follow the ostensible Avengers “big four”–Downey, Hemsworth, Evans, and Ruffalo. Though Ruffalo is just moving through where he’s playing second fiddle. First it’s to Hemsworth, then to Downey, then to Evans. Ruffalo’s fine and likable as ever, but… Infinity War goes far in showing, while Ed Norton might be regretting the profit sharing, he didn’t miss out on any great acting opportunities with the franchise.

Evans also ends up supporting other storylines, like Paul Bettany and Elizabeth Olsen trying to figure out how they’re going to survive the movie. Bettany is an android superhero (though he’s a distressingly weak android superhero in Infinity War) who has one of the rocks Brolin wants in his head. Olsen’s the woman who loves him; she’s also a superhero and the only one who can destroy said stone to save the universe, if need be. Evans protects them? He brings along sidekicks–Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, and eventually Sebastian Stan–to help, but even they get a little more to do. Johansson bonds with Danai Gurira (after Evans and company become second–or third–fiddle to the Black Panther cast), Mackie and Cheadle have some rapport. I guess Stan doesn’t really get anything. But then neither does Chadwick Boseman, who’s the actual Black Panther. He’s scenery.

And then they get Ruffalo lumped in too because… the movie doesn’t actually need him. It’s kind of shocking how good the CG works with Brolin’s character versus Ruffalo’s Hulk. I know I mentioned it already, but it’s really striking.

Anyway. Hemsworth teams up with Pratt, Saldana, and the other Guardians team members who get almost nothing to do in the film–especially not after their first scene confronting Brolin; an Infinity War needs cannon fodder, after all. He’s got his quest with the CG Guardians and some fun moments with Cooper; Peter Dinklage shows up at some point in there too.

Then there’s Downey, who’s got Holland and Cumberbatch with him as they hurtle through the galaxy for a showdown with Brolin. They think. They eventually team up with the Guardians cast, leading to those scenes where we have to pretend Pratt can hold his own opposite Downey. Oh, right. It’s after Pratt can’t hold his own opposite Hemsworth and every single character in the movie makes fun of him for it. Good scene, but whatever.

So a lot going on. Because then there’s also Brolin’s whole arc, which involves adoptive daughter Saldana (he took her in after killing her mother and half the population of her planet). Lots going on, all at once. When the movie gets to the third act and all the storylines are going fullsteam–Brolin can instantly teleport between them, which helps to streamline–it’s truly astounding what editors Jeffrey Ford and Matthew Schmidt manage with their cutting. The film has a rhythm to it already, but they’re able to rev it something spectacular for the finish. Infinity War is a technical marvel. No pun.

Alan Silvestri’s score even recovers from the first act, when it’s focusing on repeating franchise themes.

Performance wise… Brolin’s best. Then Downey. They get the most to do. Their showdown, for instance, hints at some great nemesis possibility. The movie’s just too big (and already too long when they get together) for it. Then Holland? Holland doesn’t get a lot to do after the first act, especially not once Pratt and company join his storyline, but he’s always great support for Downey and he’s got the film’s best single scene (for a non-CG actor, anyway). Then Hemsworth. Because after Hemsworth everyone is fine, but not particularly standout. Though Saldana, Bettany, and Olsen all have some rather good moments; Saldana because it’s opposite Brolin’s CG giant alien, Bettany and Olsen because they’re able to ooze chemistry even though Bettany’s caked in red body paint.

Evans, Boseman, Cumberbatch, whoever. They get their jobs done. The movie doesn’t task them with a lot and always implies if they got another scene or two, they’d be quite good. The rapport between Johansson and Gurira, Cheadle and Mackie, whoever. The film implies potential, but keeps it in check because the trains have to run on time.

Even Pratt’s fine. Karen Gillan’s still not good. And the movie doesn’t do poor Pom Klementieff any favors.

Just getting to the finish line with Infinity War is a win for directors Russo and the screenwriters. Getting it to the finish line with so much good stuff along the way… the film’s a lot more successful than should even be possible, given it’s so seeped in franchise continuity and bloated with characters. The filmmakers nimbly hop through it all. Because, frankly, they get to leverage it all with Brolin’s singular, phenomenal performance.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo; screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, based on the Marvel comics created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby; director of photography, Trent Opaloch; edited by Jeffrey Ford and Matthew Schmidt; music by Alan Silvestri; production designer, Charles Wood; produced by Kevin Feige; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Josh Brolin (Thanos), Zoe Saldana (Gamora), Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark / Iron Man), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Benedict Cumberbatch (Doctor Strange), Chris Pratt (Peter Quill / Star-Lord), Paul Bettany (Vision), Elizabeth Olsen (Wanda Maximoff / Scarlet Witch), Mark Ruffalo (Bruce Banner / Hulk), Tom Holland (Peter Parker / Spider-Man), Chris Evans (Steve Rogers / Captain America), Bradley Cooper (Rocket), Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow), Dave Bautista (Drax), Pom Klementieff (Mantis), Tom Vaughan-Lawlor (Ebony Maw), Carrie Coon (Proxima Midnight), Terry Notary (Cull Obsidian), Michael James Shaw (Corvus Glaive), Chadwick Boseman (T’Challa / Black Panther), Karen Gillan (Nebula), Danai Gurira (Okoye), Tom Hiddleston (Loki), Don Cheadle (James Rhodes / War Machine), Peter Dinklage (Eitri), Benedict Wong (Wong), Anthony Mackie (Sam Wilson / Falcon), Sebastian Stan (Bucky Barnes / Winter Soldier), Letitia Wright (Shuri), Winston Duke (M’Baku), Idris Elba (Heimdall), Gwyneth Paltrow (Pepper Potts), Benicio Del Toro (The Collector), and William Hurt (Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross).


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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017, James Gunn)

I’m going to start by saying some positive things about Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. It has fantastic CG. Wow is cinematographer Henry Braham truly inept at compositing it with live footage, but the CG is fantastic. Whether it’s the exploding spaceships or exploding planets or the genetically engineered, bipedal racoon, the CG is fantastic. It’s not exception with the other CG character, the micro-sized plant toddler or de-aging Kurt Russell, but, dang, is there some good CG. And James Gunn is usually good with the shot composition for it. So long as he’s in medium long shot or long shot and they shots don’t involve Chris Pratt. Especially not when they involve Pratt and Zoe Saldana. But otherwise, pretty good with the composition.

Other good things? Bradley Cooper’s great voicing the racoon. Yes, it’s a Gilbert Gottfried impression, but… given the amount of dialogue Cooper gets, he’s so much better at delivering than anyone else in the movie, he deserves a lot of credit. He’s got more vocal inflection in four words than Pratt manages in his entire performance. Saldana, well, like Dave Bautista, their lack of affect is part of their characters. There’s an excuse. Maybe not a good one, but there’s an excuse. And Bautista’s fine. He gives one of the film’s better performances. Though, technically, Saldana doesn’t even give one of it’s bad ones. Because she’s always opposite Pratt–who’s downright laughable when he’s got to pretend to emote–or Karen Gillan. Technically, Gillan has one of the film’s more thoughtful character arcs… unfortunately, she’s terrible.

And it’s not like Gunn (who also scripts) can make the family relationship between Saldana and Gillan work. The daughters of an intergalactic would-be despot who spent childhood trying to murder one another in combat for his amusement then reconciling as adults? Given Gunn rejects the idea of taking the setting seriously–you know, the Galaxy–and is downright hostile the idea of doing so (apparently no civilization in the known universe except Earth has come up with iPhones or similar personal technologies), he’s probably the right one to crack it. But he sure does better at it than Pratt finding out his deadbeat dad is Kurt Russell, who’s an interstellar being with the power to create life. Their relationship is a series of terrible scenes punctuated by Pratt’s terrible deliveries and emoting.

How Russell was able to keep a straight face through the film… well, professionalism. Pass it on.

I did not dedicate all the bad and stupid things in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 to memory. I gave up somewhere before the first act finished, but a lot of the problem is Pratt. And Gunn. Both as a writer and director. As a director, Gunn could give a crap about performances. Everyone mugs through bad jokes. Or pop culture references. The pop culture references are concerning, not just because Gunn uses them instead of giving Pratt’s character any interiority, but also because they imply some really dumb things about the character. Pratt’s got an arc in Vol. 2. It’s one of the many concerning things about the film, if you give the film any thought, which Gunn doesn’t want you to do and you don’t want to do because it just reminds you of the very, very long two hours plus you’ve already put in.

Needless to say, Pratt’s “finding his father” arc–involving Russell and intergalactic mercenary Michael Rooker (who speaks entirely in B-movie colloquialisms even though he’s an alien)–is pretty weak. Rooker does better than the other two, but… only because he’s not godawful. Pratt’s bad, Russell’s not good, but the writing for both of them is lousy. Rooker’s got dumb dialogue, but Gunn definitely gives him the best male arc. Again, Rooker’s professional. It helps. A lot.

The chaste romance between Pratt and Saldana is terrible. It only gets one real big scene and it’s one of Pratt’s worst, which is something because it comes after his previous low of the “Dad? You wanna have a catch?” scene. There’s no floor to Pratt’s inability to essay, you know, sincerity in this film. He’s not good mugging through the jokes but at least then it’s only not funny, not a crime against filmed dramatics.

Other macro terrible things… oh. Yeah. Pom Klementieff as Russell’s empathic pet. She’s around to give Bautista someone to talk with for much of the second act and to engender suspicion regarding Russell’s true intentions. Gunn’s writing for her character is frankly hostile. He uses her as the butt of jokes, he emotionally manipulates her (usually only to objectify her–or not objectify her), and to act as… well, he needs someone to mock and particularly redeem. He makes fun of his brother (Sean Gunn plays Rooker’s sidekick) but eventually redeems the character. Klementieff’s treatment just gets worse as her character “development” progresses.

It’s truly astounding Bautista is able to rise above the material in his scenes with her, since he’s usually the one crapping all over her. The joke is, she doesn’t know better because Russell’s keeping as a combination of pet and slave. It’s fine. He’s got cool hair. Though, maybe in one of the most telling plot holes, Russell has absolutely no interaction with Klementieff after their introduction. Her name might as well be Malcolm Crowe as far as Russell’s concerned… though, wait, Russell doesn’t really interact with anyone except Pratt–maybe he wasn’t available for filming. On one hand, it’s narratively nonsensical, on the other, it saves from (different) bad scenes.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is ostentatious, self-congratulatory dreck. It’s impressively executed on its scale in terms of set pieces. The editing of them is bad. Gunn and editors Fred Raskin and Craig Wood choke through every single action sequence in the film, whether it’s a space battle or fist fight. There’s a lot of emphasis on the soundtrack, which has some great songs, terribly set to scene. Of course, Tyler Bates’s score–with a couple actual good tracks–is lousy too. It’s a lose-lose. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a lose-lose.

Even when the third act is so impressively executed (though not in terms of dramatic tension); there’s a lot going on, some of it dumb, sure, but still a lot and Gunn is able to play it through. Shame none of the acting is good, outside maybe Rooker. Cooper’s “arc” doesn’t amount to much in the end, other than him still giving a better performance with his voice than anyone else in the movie.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is hostile to even momentary thoughtfulness, critical thinking, or–god forbid–actually being able to contextualize what the pop culture references would actually mean… It’s not even tripe. Regardless of the technical compentence of the third act (I mean, where was it in the first). It’s not fluff. It’s not popcorn. It’s a $200 million rubber dog poop gag.

With bad cinematography and terrible acting. Like. The most interesting question the film raises is how did they get the tears in Pratt’s emotion-free eyes? Visine or CG?

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by James Gunn; screenplay by Gunn, based on the comic book by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning; director of photography, Henry Braham; edited by Fred Raskin and Craig Wood; music by Tyler Bates; production designer, Scott Chambliss; produced by Kevin Feige; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Chris Pratt (Peter Quill), Zoe Saldana (Gamora), Dave Bautista (Drax), Bradley Cooper (Rocket), Michael Rooker (Yondu), Karen Gillan (Nebula), Sean Gunn (Kraglin), Pom Klementieff (Mantis), Elizabeth Debicki (Ayesha), Chris Sullivan (Taserface), and Kurt Russell (Ego).


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Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018, Christopher McQuarrie)

Mission: Impossible – Fallout is two and a half hours of almost constant, continuous action. There’s an opening sequence to set things up–Tom Cruise botches a mission because he likes his sidekicks too much (and who wouldn’t like Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg, who make a fantastic pair in the film). He gets in dutch not with boss Alec Baldwin (who can barely maintain his man crush on Cruise) but with Angela Bassett, who’s the CIA boss. Cruise and company are IMF, which stands for Impossible Mission Force. Oddly, even though Henry Cavill (as Bassett’s CIA muscle who tags along to babysit Cruise) makes fun of the Mission: Impossible “let’s wear masks and pretend to be bad guys” thing, he doesn’t make fun of the Impossible Mission Force name.

Maybe writer (and director) McQuarrie only wanted to go so far with it.

So even though Cruise has botched the opening mission, Bassett’s willing to let him go off and try to save the world from rogue secret agents who want plutonium. Sadly they don’t need it to get 1.21 gigawatts, they need it to set off nuclear bombs and destabilize the world as we know it. As long as he takes Cavill along.

Bassett describes Cruise as a scalpel and Cavill as a hammer, but it’s more like Cruise is a hammer and Cavill is a jackhammer. Cavill towers over Cruise, making their scenes together in the first act all the more impressive because Cruise maintains the upper hand. Not hogging the screen acting-wise, but in terms of being the more dominating ideology. Cruise is a good secret agent, Cavill is an immaculately groomed thug. Cruise is fairly immaculate as well, but he gets dirty. Not too dirty; whoever was in charge of maintaining their hair during action scenes deserves some kind of special Oscar. Secret agents have great hair.

Pegg, Baldwin, and Bassett included. Rhames is shaved bald. And when British secret agent and former Cruise and company member Rebecca Ferguson shows up a little while into the film, she too has great hair. Only Sean Harris, as the villain, doesn’t have great hair. He’s wild and unkempt. He’s an ex-secret agent who wants to destroy the world. Cruise stopped him once and, in Fallout, now has to decide whether or not to potentially free Harris to get back that plutonium.

The film stays in Europe for most of the story, with the biggest sequences in Paris and London. The finale heads to rural Central Asia, where director McQuarrie proves just as adept at mounting phenomenal action sequences as he does in European metropolises. McQuarrie never lingers too long on landmarks, but he’s always aware of the architecture. There’s lots of Cruise in long shot, running through a building (or across the top of one) and great scenic backdrops. It’s charming. And always perfectly paced. McQuarrie’s direction, more than his script, more than any of the performances, makes Fallout. He gets the film set up, gets it moving, and runs it to the finish. He never races–Fallout’s pacing (especially for a two and a half hour movie) is outstanding. McQuarrie has some twists, but he’s also just got good plot developments.

He’s also able to use dream sequences–albeit ones with visions of nuclear destruction–to do a lot of Cruise’s character development. Though, really, Fallout doesn’t have much character development. Not for anyone else, anyway. Pegg’s got a tiny personal subplot about being more self-confident and Ferguson’s sort of got one but not really. Like Rhames doesn’t have any. Neither does Cavill. He’s there to be a foil. There’s not time for character development. There’s plutonium out there and Cruise’ll be damned if he’s going to let anyone get hurt.

All of Cruise’s dream sequence character development involves guilt over how he ruined ex-wife Michelle Monaghan’s life by being a secret agent, forcing her into hiding. Monaghan’s a memory in Fallout, someone offscreen in danger to give Cruise something constant to fret about. McQuarrie doesn’t give Cruise any angst to deal with, just the dream sequences haunting him. Harris haunts him too, because Harris knows Cruise too well. It’s impressive how well McQuarrie integrates it into the film since Fallout’s always moving. Even when Rhames has to tell Ferguson about Monaghan because Ferguson is sweet on Cruise and thinks Cruise might just be sweet on her, which leads to a lovely scene in Paris in a park. McQuarrie is sparing with the quiet moments, but they’re always exceptional. They’re so well-executed, technically speaking, it lets him get away with the script being a little saccharine.

Baldwin’s not the only one with a man crush on Cruise; McQuarrie’s pretty smitten too. Cruise isn’t just a good guy, he’s the only good guy who can save the world. It’d be eye-rolling if the film didn’t make such a successful argument for it.

All the acting is fine or better. Vanessa Kirby, as a blue blood heiress arms dealer, gets a little grating, but she’s an arms dealer. She’s not really supposed to be too sympathetic.

Cruise is good. He’s got some really fun moments, not just the action stuff, but also the action stuff. He and Ferguson’s gentle flirtation is likable, just like he and Cavill’s muted hostility is entertaining. Rhames and Pegg are both fun. Harris is a good villain. Cavill’s good, though probably has the worst character in the film. McQuarrie never quite gives him enough and sometimes too little. Especially in the third act. Same with Ferguson; she’s got her own subplot–aside from the Cruise crush–and McQuarrie kind of chucks it once she fully teams up with Cruise and company. Actually, there’s enough of a logic leap with her character… maybe some scene got cut.

On the technical side, Fallout’s excellent. Rob Hardy’s photography is good, Eddie Hamilton’s editing is great. Lorne Balfe’s score is quite good; he’s sparing when integrating the Lalo Schifrin theme and always right on when does (or doesn’t) use it.

Fallout’s a superior large-scale, stunt-filled, action picture. It’s more thrilling than ever a thriller–in the third act, even the good guys can’t really be in any life-threatening danger because franchise, McQuarrie is still able to make every moment rivet. Fallout is a spectacular action spectacle.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Christopher McQuarrie; screenplay by McQuarrie, based on the television series created by Bruce Geller; director of photography, Rob Hardy; edited by Eddie Hamilton; music by Lorne Balfe; production designer, Peter Wenham; produced by Tom Cruise, McQuarrie, Jake Myers, and J.J. Abrams; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Tom Cruise (Ethan Hunt), Henry Cavill (Walker), Ving Rhames (Luther), Simon Pegg (Benji), Rebecca Ferguson (Ilsa), Vanessa Kirby (White Widow), Michelle Monaghan (Julia), Alec Baldwin (Hunley), Angela Bassett (Sloan), Wes Bentley (Patrick), Liang Yang (Lark), Kristoffer Joner (Nils Debruuk), and Sean Harris (Solomon Lane).


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The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966, Sergio Leone)

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly ends up being about three criminals–of varying type–hunting down some stolen Confederate gold. But that Confederate gold story line takes a break after getting setup in the first ten minutes–for almost an hour of the two and a half hour plus film–so Good, the Bad and the Ugly can introduce its protagonist and his antagonist. Eli Wallach, playing the Ugly, is the protagonist. Clint Eastwood, the Good, is the antagonist. Lee Van Cleef is the Bad, but he doesn’t really figure in until the second hour.

Wallach’s a criminal. Eastwood’s a bounty hunter. Only they’ve got a scheme worked out where Eastwood will bring Wallach in, collect the bounty, then save him from hanging. Only things go bad in their partnership, partially because Wallach’s such a scumbag, partially because Eastwood’s greedy. The film follows Wallach, with Eastwood getting maybe five scenes to himself away from Wallach. And at least two of them are Eastwood with Van Cleef. Eastwood’s practically a special guest star in the film, despite being top-billed.

The film opens with vingettes setting up the three characters. Well, not Eastwood. His setup vingette is a continuation of Wallach’s. Van Cleef’s vingette introduces the missing Confederate gold. He then gets some occasional investigation scenes before disappearing for a half hour or so. The film’s got to move Wallach and Eastwood into position to intersect with the missing gold plot line. Through exceptional plot contrivance.

It’s fine though, because Good, the Bad and the Ugly can get away with plot contrivance. Director Leone’s style and Wallach and Eastwood’s performances (more Wallach, Eastwood just has to be charming) can carry it through. There’s a lot of humor–Wallach’s such an abject bastard he’s lovable–and some rather excellent action scenes.

But then, in the second hour, Good, the Bad and the Ugly changes completely. It’s no longer a Western with Civil War trappings, it’s a Civil War picture with Eastwood, Wallach, and Van Cleef shoehorned in. Even if Van Cleef’s working as a Union prison camp sergeant hoping to get a line on that missing gold. During that sequence, which involves Van Cleef’s enforcer (Mario Brega) viciously beating Wallach for information, while the Confederate soldiers play a song to cover the noise, Leone transitions from making that Western to the Civil War picture.

Only he still then follows the plot of that Western quest for gold, gunfighters, bandits, doublecrosses. But until the end of the film, none of the non-Civil War stuff (save Wallach’s solo hilarities) can compare to what Leone’s doing with the Civil War stuff. The prison camp sequence is jarring and affecting, it’s also nothing compared to what Leone’s got coming.

There’s a shorter sequence involving Eastwood and Wallach coming upon a Union encampment. They’re on one side of the river, the Confederates are on the other. They’re fighting over the bridge. The Union captain (Aldo Giuffrè, in what’s got to be one of the best dubbed performances ever) is a drunk, crushed under the weight of sending his men to needlessly die twice a day for a bridge he wishes he could destroy.

If Eastwood had a real character arc, this sequence would kick off its final stage. He doesn’t though, but the movie uses him like he does and–for a while–gets to pretend it’s a thoughtful look at the two bandits encountering an entirely different kind of violence than they’re used to experiencing. It doesn’t even last as long as Eastwood and Wallach are at the Union camp, but it’s spectacular. It picks up again a little when they continue on their way to the inevitable showdown over the gold; just for Eastwood though. The film’s back to treating Wallach as the lovable bastard.

The Civil War material is passionate–with the Ennio Morricone score having a different, more romantic tone than the Western action sequences–and technically ambitious in terms of scale. The Western action sequences (for the most part, Eastwood and Wallach taking on Van Cleef’s thugs is a confused mix of the two styles) are a glorious mix of composition, editing, music, and photography. The cemetery-set finale, with Van Cleef, Eastwood, and Wallach in a standoff, the cuts getting more rapid between their faces, the tension (and music) intensifying with each cut, is a fantastic style culmination.

It’d be even better if Leone could’ve somehow figured a way to integrate the film’s differing tones. He doesn’t even try. He toggles away from the war rumination and back to the Western action. It’s great action. It’s just nowhere near as special (or as ambitious) as that war rumination.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is a technical marvel, with some great performances–Wallach, Van Cleef, Giuffrè–and superior photography, editing, and music. Eastwood’s perfectly good, he just doesn’t get any material. Visually, Wallach’s his stooge. Narratively, with the two Civil War reaction exceptions towards the end, Eastwood’s Wallach’s stooge. Van Cleef isn’t in it enough to be distinct to the narrative, his vicious, brutal performance does wonders what little he does get.

In the supporting roles, Giuffrè is the standout, but there are some other strong ones. Despite a large cast, the supporting players don’t get a lot of material. Brega’s a great villain, Antonio Molino Rojo has a good scene as Van Cleef’s knowing commanding officer, and Enzo Petito has a swell single scene as one of the unfortunates who encounters Wallach. And Luigi Pistilli has a good scene as Wallach’s brother; it’s the two and a half hour film’s single attempt at character development.

Morricone’s score, both for the Western action and Civil War sequences, is singular. Eugenio Alabiso and Nino Baragli’s editing is glorious. Leone’s composition, ably facilitated by Tonino Delli Colli, is excellent. Good, the Bad and the Ugly is an outstanding success.

It’s just nowhere near as ambitious as it ought to be, as Leone seems to want to make it to be.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Sergio Leone; screenplay by Agenore Incrocci, Furio Scarpelli, Luciano Vincenzoni, and Leone, based on a story by Vincenzoni and Leone; director of photography, Tonino Delli Colli; edited by Eugenio Alabiso and Nino Baragli; music by Ennio Morricone; production designer, Carlo Simi; produced by Alberto Grimaldi; released by Produzioni Europee Associate.

Starring Eli Wallach (Tuco), Clint Eastwood (Blondie), Lee Van Cleef (Angel Eyes), Aldo Giuffrè (Captain Clinton), Mario Brega (Cpl. Wallace), Luigi Pistilli (Father Pablo Ramirez), Antonio Molino Rojo (Capt. Harper), Enzo Petito (Storekeeper), and Antonio Casale (Bill Carson).


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