In most circles, the discussion over which film is Corbucci’s best is usually over whether it’s his gothic-comic theatrics in Django or his bleak ultra-violent The Great Silence. Both are solid, with The Great Silence probably approaching true greatness more often than the somewhat simplistic but fun Django. The Mercenary is something altogether different, and for my money, my favorite of the Corbucci’s I’ve seen thus far. It sits most comfortably in the Zapata western subgenre, but is basically a spaghetti western in tone and execution. I like The Mercenary slightly better than The Great Silence because The Mercenary is self aware, sly, and takes itself less seriously, subverting the usual over-the-topness of the spaghetti western by over-amplifying everything but infusing a great deal of deadpan humor into its fantastic, explosive action. It’s almost like Corbucci already realized in 1968 the inherent potential pitfalls of a genre built upon heavy doses of spectacle…… Such spectacle was ripe for subversion, so Corbucci takes himself less serious here.
The Mercenary (or as known in the U.S., A Professional Gun) is a story set during the 1910’s of the Mexican revolution. Spaghetti western veteran Franco Nero plays the Polish mercenary Sergei Kowalski. Sergei agrees to help some men carry silver across the border. A weirdo named Curly (Jack Palance) hears of the plan and kills a few of the men who are part of the silver deal. Sergei then ends up arriving at a town just as a Colonel Alfonso Garcia and his Mexican Army is about to put down some revolutionaries. Kowalski runs into the leader of the revolutionaries, Paco (Tony Musante), during the battle, and Paco pays Kowalski handsomely to get them out of trouble. Kowalski quickly employs his machine gun and dynamite tactics, thwarting the army and saving the day for the revolutionaries. Paco and Kowalski thus begin an odd relationship, sometimes together and sometimes at odds with each other as they fight their way across Mexico and as Kowalski shows Paco how to conduct the revolution. Curly comes back into the picture as the main nemesis when he attempts to track down both Paco and Kowalski to help the Mexican army and for his own personal gain as there is a price on their heads. It’s all rather convoluted as is expected, with crossings, double crossings etc, but part of the fun is the journey.
Corbucci might be the best action director of all the spaghetti western directors, and this film is exhibit A. It could really be described as a full blown action picture set out west, and a really good one at that. Lots of machine guns and explosions everywhere and there’s some great setpieces. Of particular note is that first sequence where Kowalski sets up the machine gun, mowing down the whole Mexican Army, before strapping dynamite to a car and driving it straight at the cannons. Another brilliant scene is when Paco, Kowalski and crew dress up as part of a parade on a float…..they quickly whip out their machine guns in mid-parade and mow down tons of soldiers. It’s a colorful and explosively photographed scene. Then there’s the huge battle sequence near the end of the film, where the Army employs an airplane to drop bombs on the town. Of course Kowalski is able to shoot it down with just his rifle! Amazing stuff and so brilliant, almost upping the ante with each additional scene. In the fantastically framed showdown sequence (one of the greatest of such scenes imaginable), Curly meets a clown-faced Paco in the middle of a bullfighting ring, while Kowalski referees the duel from the side, tolling a bell three times before Paco and Curly shoot each other with rifles. The joy of this scene is the close where Curly realizes he’s been shot by looking at his white carnation turning red.
Other terrific elements? Allejandro Alloa’s cinematography employs nice handheld shots and eye-catching compositions, in what is probably Corbucci’s most artistically framed film. Ennio Morricone adds another terrific score to the spaghetti western genre, this one is a whistle-infused score that is distinctive and beautiful in its lilting simplicity (Tarantino borrowed it in Kill Bill Vol 2). Franco Nero is terrifically deadpan and masculine as the Polish mercenary, employing a near-winking attitude throughout that keeps us on our toes. I particularly love the scene where he’s treated like royalty in the dessert and complains that he is too hot, so everyone empties their canteen into a wooden bucket so he can take a shower. Hilarious. I also love the moment when Kowalski is leading Paco with a rope behind his horse to turn him into the authorities to get his reward…..but then the Army comes by, letting Kowalski know that the reward on his own head is even higher than Paco’s. The next shot shows both of them being led by ropes behind the army as they’re taken to the firing squad. This sort of lightness of touch, amidst the explosive bombast is what is so appealing about this film. It’s incredibly balanced and nuanced and a testament to the kinds of layers that Corbucci infuses into his films. True it’s a rather blatant testosterone fest, but it's one of the best of its kind.