A Fistful of Dynamite

Rated: PG
Runtime: 2 Hours and 38 Minutes

Reviewer: Dale
Grade: A+

One of the great joys of this....well, I hesitate to call it a job, seeing as how there is no money in it, let's call it a hobby.....is that sometimes I discover a great film and then I get to blather to all you fine people in cyberspace about it. Sometimes, it is a film you have heard of. Like "Lawrence of Arabia" or "Network": magnificent old films that everyone and their brother praises to the rafters. And they should, because both of those films are amazing. But sometimes it is a film that, for no apparent reason, has been chained up in the basement of cinematic history much like a stepchild in a V.C. Andrews novel.

"A Fistful of Dynamite" is one of these films. Other films in the ouevre of master filmmaker Sergio Leone have gained much praise, and deservedly so. There is no finer Western to these eyes than "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly"...unless it is "Once Upon a Time in the West"...which was also done by the great Sergio. Sergio also trumped all films in the gangster genre with his breathtaking and haunting "Once Upon a Time in America". Well, what you may not have heard is that between "Once Upon a Time in the West" and "Once Upon a Time in America", he did yet another outstanding film. But the reason you may not have heard of it is that it's not as ambitious in scope as those other two. Nor is it as serious. Though neither of those two is without it's moments of light heartedness and humor. Such was the genius of Sergio. But neither of those films is as occasionally gut-busting as "A Fistful of Dynamite".

Yet, what makes "A Fistful of Dynamite" so great is not that it has humor. It is that it has an immense scope, yet tells a rather personal and passionate tale. It tells the story of an entire nation through two characters who are actually outsiders to the conflict of this country. In that matter, it reminds me of "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly", wherein the Civil War served as little more than the backdrop for three men on the trail of some gold. This time, the revolution at hand is a larger part of the story, but in much the same way.

Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger) is no revolutionary. He is a bandit. He robs stagecoaches with his sons and his father (where is his wife in all this? Who knows. This is never explained, and it doesn't need to be) and has a dream that is the main reason for his existence. His dream is to rob the First National Bank of Mesa Verde. It is all he has ever wanted. He has even gone so far as to construct a shrine to this bank and talk at great length about its loveliness.

One day, after robbing a stagecoach, Juan meets an Irishman named John Mallory (James Coburn). He shoots the back tire of this man's motorcycle. Coburn responds by calmly blowing a hole in the roof of Juan's pilfered stagecoach with some nitro. This gives Juan a wonderful idea: with John and his explosives knowledge on his side, he can finally rob the Mesa Verde bank. John wants nothing to do with this at first. He is on the run from the law in his own country for another revolution and, we soon find out, is a flag-bearing member of the IRA.

Soon, on their quest to rob the bank (mostly Juan's quest, really) they become entangled in the Mexican Revolution. At first, they use the revolution as a front for their robbery. But once they are in, they find getting out a little harder than they had first imagined. Soon, they are among the leaders of the revolt: whether they like it or not.

Among this film's greatest assets is its plot. The idea of a man becoming a hero of the revolution by doing things which are motivated simply out of his own selfish desires is simply ingenious. I have never seen a plot like this in a film, and I was completely enchanted by it.
The humor in this film is remarkable. It's not quite as funny as "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly", but it is refreshing and based on character. The characters are also a major selling point here. I've seen a lot of movies (understatement of the year, that) but I've never seen a couple guys like Juan and John. They're a joy to behold. At first, you laugh at them, then with them, and by the end you feel them in your heart. For a rousing, bloody action movie, this film generates a surprising amount of emotion and warmth. I don't mean the goopy, "Patch
Adams" sort of warmth either. There is something deep and remarkable beneath the surface of this film. I'm not sure how it was accomplished, but I believe it owes to the sure-handed direction of Sergio Leone, and the acting finesse of both Steiger and Coburn. Though their accents are shaky at times, they simply remind you that accents aren't everything. You don't think of them as Coburn and Steiger during the course of this film: you buy them completely as Juan and John.

There is another noteworthy character here as well: the character of Dr. Viega (Romolo Valli). He is a rich and riveting man to watch, as are all of them in this film. Sergio even provides us with a notably vicious villain. With only a handful of words he creates a genuine sense of menace from this man. We sense him not so much as a man but as an unstoppable force, relentless and tough and enigmatic. I also liked the enigmatic nature of Coburn's character. Though you get a real sense of where he comes from, you're never exactly sure what he will do next, or exactly what he wants to get out of this or where he stands.
Personally, I thought that was nicely done. It keeps you on your toes and close to the edge of your seat.

Another thing that keeps you on the edge of your seat are the pulse-pounding action sequences. There are some moments here that, even thirty years later, get the blood pumping in ways that modern action films only dream of. A bridge explosion near the middle of the film, in particular, leaves one gasping for breath. I can't figure out how it was achieved: but I can't think of any way other than the utter annihalation of a real, stone bridge. Damn! The train sequence is also very exciting.

Moving back to the direction, I must say that Leone's command of camera placement and his magnificent flair for transitions have never been better. Morricone's score is also worth note.
The only thing I've heard mentioned about this score is its strangeness (and it is strange) but it is also beautiful, haunting and unshakable. It's so far removed from your traditional movie score that one has to marvel at how Morricone even devised such themes. Then again, the same statements could be made about any Ennio Morricone score, which simply means that this one is up to his usual brilliance. The film is paced perfectly, no complaints in that department. Or in any department, for that matter.

Try as I might to find fault with this film, I just can't do it. Sure, it's strange. It's not your average western. With cars, tanks and motorcycles, it may not even be a western. It's violent as hell, with a body count that is still remarkably high. It's cynical. It's beautiful. It's haunting.
It's mesmerizing. It's fun. It's nothing short of brilliant, actually. And it's a shame that it isn't more widely available and more prominently mentioned. It may take some effort, but seek out "A Fistful of Dynamite". You won't be disappointed.