Sergei Kowalski (Franco Nero), a mercenary only out for himself and a few dollars, joins up with a Mexican peasant-turned-revolutionary, Paco Roman (Tony Musante), when the price is right. No longer content to toil for the rich and powerful, Roman plans to bring a new order to Mexico by force with his small ragtag group. While Roman and Kowalski are outnumbered facing the Mexican army, they also have to contend with Curly (Jack Palance), a vengeful killer out for blood.
"Never question a man who pays well."
It's tough to know what to make of the work of Sergio Corbucci. A natural at directing action and adventure Spaghetti Westerns, his films often feel like they get away from him. While many of his films were similar to the works of Sergio Leone, Corbucci injected a lighter air of humor and play to the violence giving them a more pulp exploitation feel. But sometimes he could play too much to the point where things start to get repetitive. While being a fun and entertaining flick, Corbucci's 1968 venture The Mercenary featuring genre legends Franco Nero, Tony Musante, and Jack Palance starts out lean and mean, but gets bogged down and repetitive when it arrives at the finish line.
Mexico is in upheaval. Revolution is about to break out at any moment pitting the poor against the rich - which is the perfect place to be if you're a man like Sergei "The Pollack" Kowalski (Franco Nero). As a man without any honor, Kowalski sells his gun to any man willing to pay cash or coin. Initially hired by a trio of rich brothers to export seven tons of silver out of Mexico and into the United States, he soon goes to work for the leader of a peasant uprising by the name of Paco Roman (Tony Musante). Together Kowalski and Paco raid and conquer outposts winning great victories for the people of Mexico while making Kowalski rich. Everything would be going swimmingly if Paco and Kowalski could stop double-crossing each other long enough to see that a man called Curly (Jack Palance) has been hired to kill them both.
If there is a problem to be had with The Mercenary it's that its story seems to be playing the improv game "and then what." Once one action sequence ends, another begins not out of story necessity but because it feels like the film's writers were making things up as they went along. Where the film starts with a simple and basic premise about a man hired to export silver and the revolutionary who wants the same consignment of silver for his cause, the show starts to muddle itself when it moves away to a plot about the pair exploiting the Mexican Revolution for profit. It's as if a dozen or so fun and entertaining action sequences were written up and filmed but without any way to link them together in a way that felt organic. Sure, they're fun to watch. It's a riot to see the exploits of Kowalski and Paco as they overtake one government garrison after another, but it starts to feel repetitive after a time when there just doesn't seem to be a point to what they're doing.
Thankfully, the film isn't a complete loss. Once the film is done having fun with its colorful characters, it gets back on course and finds a way to end in a satisfying way that sees redemption for our unlikely heroes and death to the ones who had it coming. But at 110 minutes, the film absolutely feels its bloated middle where similar shootouts, character squabbles, and the same jaunty Mexican bandit tune rings again and again. At least the great chemistry between Franco Nero and Tony Musante make these sequences watchable. The two men clearly worked well together and they do offer up a natural friction to their characters that makes their comedic battle of wills and wishes entertaining in between the extensive rounds of machine gun fire.
If there is a condemnation to be made - beyond the unfocused action - it's the underutilized Curly played by Jack Palance. Early on he's set up as a man willing to exploit any scenario for his own gains and is ready to kill anyone who gets in his way. But then the film moves away from him for a solid forty minutes when he could have been a terrific antagonizing presence for our mismatched heroes - even if the permed curls look a little ridiculous on a steely mug like Palance's. He's still a terrific heavy in this movie and makes for a great villain when he's on screen.
Even with a few reservations, The Mercenary is a fun ride. Once again we have another great Morricone score with help from Bruno Nicolai that perfectly fits the timber of the film. It's exciting and action-packed and knows how to have a great time. It may have a little too much fun in some places, but just the same it's a wild ride. It may not be as sharp as Corbucci's Navajo Joe, but if you're a genre fan, you should give this one a watch. I'm pretty sure you'll enjoy yourself.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Mercenary makes its way to Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber Studio Classics. Pressed onto a Region A BD-50 disc, the disc is housed in a standard sturdy Blu-ray case and comes with a booklet containing cover images for other Studio Classics release. The disc loads directly to a static image main menu featuring traditional navigation options.
The Mercenary arrives with a strong 2.35:1 1080p transfer. Similar to Death Rides A Horse, The Mercenary doesn't appear to have been minted from a very recent master but is still in good condition just the same. Details are strong and offer a great look at the costuming and facial features - there are some terrific beards here. Colors are stable and bold allowing for some vibrant primaries. Nero's steely pale blue eyes are particularly striking in some shots. Black levels are middling, they approach inky black but can appear a bit on the brown side during some darker scenes. Print damage is mild, mostly just some speckling but there are a couple shots that are a bit rougher than others. Nothing too distracting but noticeable all the same. No DNR or smoothing was employed but I spotted a little banding here and there. All around this is still a great looking image and fans of the film should be pleased.
Bolstered by an effective DTS-HD MA 2.0 audio mix, The Mercenary makes the most of its audio stylings. Like most Spaghetti Westerns of the era, it's very front-loaded and processed. Dubbing for the actors is suitable, again you get that telltale rubber mouth effect every now and again when it's obvious the actor isn't a native English speaker, but the dialogue is clean and clear throughout. Scoring is sharp allowing Morricone and his cohort Bruno Nicolai plenty of opportunity to flex their muscles and the music blends in perfectly with the mix. Atmospherics are a bit flat, again because of the canned sound effects the film tends to sound a bit fake, but that's to be expected. Levels are also just fine without needing to be adjusted. Without any notable hiss or artifacts, this is a solid audio mix.
Again, this is a Studio Classics release and there usually isn't much in the way of a bonus features package. However, filmmaker Alex Cox returns to deliver another interesting and informative audio commentary that's well worth the listen.
Audio Commentary featuring filmmaker Alex Cox
Promoting Mercenario (HD 10:20) This is a fun look at the marketing materials that were used to promote the film all over the world.
Mercenario in Pictures (HD 6:12) This is a pretty terrific collection of behind-the-scenes photos and stills from the film.
Theatrical Trailer (SD 1:53)
Fistful of Dollars Trailer (SD 2:27)
Death Rides A Horse Trailer (HD 1:33)
Navajo Joe Trailer (HD1:51)
Valdez is Coming Trailer (SD 2:52)
Far from being a perfect movie, The Mercenary amply provides enough entertainment value to be worth the run. Corbucci and crew were clearly having a great time with this one and the cast is in great form. The movie may bog itself down in the middle section a bit, but it quickly recovers for a strong and satisfying finish. If you like your Spaghetti Westerns on the lighter side with plenty of over-the-top action and colorful characters, I'm pretty sure you'll enjoy The Mercenary. The film arrives on Blu-ray in fine form thanks to Kino Lorber Studio Classics. With a solid A/V presentation and a couple of cool bonus features, it's a fun flick to recommend for fans of the genre.