While not my particular specialty, it'd be downright ignorant of me to ignore or trivialize the importance of the Spaghetti Western in the evolution world cinema, particularly in the realm of 70s drive-in double features. Sergio Leone in particular stood out as a legitimized talent in the consciousness of the mainstream, his "Dollars Trilogy" in particular being an iconic and respected set of films the world over. Italy certainly offered up costumed morality plays in the name of commerce and entertainment, but it was perhaps Django, the fantastic and over the top tale of corrupt morality and nihilistic savagery, that re-defined Italy as the cultivator of the most exciting cowboy films the world over. It's been estimated that over 600 Euro-Westerns were produced between 1960 and 1980, and while I can't claim to have seen even a fraction of them, I can say that I quickly learned what I liked...
Y'see, while I can't claim to have watched a hundred of these things, I'm still well aware that there was a pretty drastic difference between the Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s and the 1970s. The former were typically low key stories that focused on a level of simplicity - they were costume dramas, not genre melding experiments, because the iconography of the lone gunman was marketable and appealing to every nation and culture the producers behind these projects could market them to. As the years wore on and audiences started getting bored of the same old story, the formula started to change. They went in shifts, going from tragic tales of lone heroism to burlesque comedies, reaching their peak in 1968 and trickling off to nothing a few scant years later, leaving only directors who were given limitless freedom over the film; this led to the morally ambiguous Bret Harte story adaptation Four of the Apocalypse, the thinly veiled religions experimentation like Keoma, and the just-plain-weird psychedelic trip Matalo! The Western as the world had known it had changed forever, trying desperately to find an audience that more and more found contemporary storytelling more engaging than bandits with six shooters, and perhaps no film showcased that shift better than a little Mexican movie called El Topo... but, that's another story for another day.
Yeah, you knew this was coming...
The Western has come back in an unusual way, with big-budget Hollywood remakes of True Grit and 3:10 to Yuma, along with bizarre Western/Horror mash-ups like Burrowers and Dead Birds. This Christmas, Quentin Tarantino - the man who, love him or hate him, literally coined the concept of loving and respecting Grindhouse Cinema to a new generation - is set to release "Django Unchained"... but perhaps more relevant to this review would be reminding us all of the last film Tarantino actually appeared in to any substantial fanfare, Takashi MIIKE's 2007 deconstruction of the Spaghetti Western as a whole, Sukiyaki Western Django. Remember that bizarre experience? A two hour piece of bitterly confusing Engrish performances broken down like a stage play, culminating in everyone in the audience being either confused or enraged? I won't say that I don't find the film fascinating on some insane level - hell, how could I not? - but it absolutely wasn't Miike mining the post-modern tropes I think the casting and plot synopsis had suggested it would be. It's not really a Western. It's a parody of a vague impression of a Western.
It was perhaps closer in tone to another dramatic rejection of the fundamentals of storytelling, Juvenile A: Big Bang Love, with the goodwill of the Macaroni Western (as it's adorably known through Japan) acting as his starting point to tell what, at its core, has nothing to do with anything but the unfortunate sameness that permeates all facets of human culture; violence, subjugation and wanting to feel connected to those around you. And yes, it went about it in roughly the most ass way possible... but come on, you didn't really expect Miike to say he was making a Western with Quentin Tarantino and then actually get a fucking Western, did you? Promising a chocolate cake and then presenting something that tastes like meatloaf pounded into a vague cake-shape frosted with chocolate icing just to spite you is... kind of his whole modus-operandi. He delivers exactly what he promised, in the least conventional way possible possible. If someone can actually come up with any other explanation for Yakuza Horror Theater: Gozu, D.O.A 2: The Birds, or Happiness of the Katakuris, I'd love to hear them.
Kentai's still got a boner for Miike, is what the above paragraph means. Don't worry though, Harakiri: Death of a Samurai 3D is sure to shake whatever goodwill 13 Assassins revived in me.
I can't speak for what Pitor Uklanski, the writer/director behind the 2006 "First Polish Western" originally titled SUMMER LOVE. What I do know is that the film is an amazing experience, a slick and gritty take that spins a story that could have been from a simpler time into a pastiche of gorgeously stylish visuals, grotesque parodies of human nature, and a mounting sense of both ghoulish humor and escalating violence, balling slowly into a fist that's gently pushed right into your gaping mouth, leaving you equal parts scared and wanting more. It's really a shame that such an unusual and impressive feature was given the rather generic "Dead Man's Bounty" title in North America, since I'd imagine with the more outre title - a reference to a song that fills the first reel, of all things - perhaps Lionsgate would have at least given the film the attention it deserves, even if it wasn't from the audience it was hoping to court.
A stranger wanders into a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, dragging with him the corpse of Val Kilmer - no, really! - and a poster promising a bounty of $500, enough money for the wild and morose denizens of the town to walk with their heads held high to the cities just outside of their slum-bound grasp. When the broke town decides they're going to collect the bounty themselves, they start a fight with the stranger that ends with him fleeing to the mountains, and the handful of residents leaving to find him and secure their new fortune... but have they messed with the wrong stranger?
It's a simple tale, no doubt, but one that does so much more with its premise than it deserves to that I refuse to talk about the actual plot any further. Nobody, absolutely nobody in the film has a name. The protagonist, known only as "The Stranger", never utters a single word. Perhaps wisely, the all Polish cast (Kilmer excluded) chooses to let their expressions and actions do most of the talking, though not to be outdone by the film's minimalism, the single most heinous act of violence to be found is relayed as a story by a character who was, up until that point, seemingly the only morally grounded character in this god forsaken town. The film isn't quite a total rejection of love and humanity so much as it is a story that takes place beyond it; the people in this one-horse town are so cut off from anything resembling good fortune or a way out that they've sunken into an almost undead state, saturating themselves with drink and bitterness, content to wither away to dust... until The Stranger suddenly makes their peaceful existence impossible, by little more than his mere presence.
Remembering that a world exists beyond their patch of nothing upsets everyone, and the notion that those things outside the walls they put up around themselves could actively be a threat drives them straight to paranoia and bloodlust. Like I said, it's not deep storytelling, but it's only as visceral as it is memorable, giving what should be minor presences - barely even characters - a chance to define themselves in ways that make little sense except in their own shattered, dismal scope of what reality might be. Much like Nicholas Winding Refn's adaptation of Drive, Uklanski's debut film is a typical action narrative filtered through the lens of an arthouse aesthetic, crushing its simplistic characters under a style that infuses what would otherwise be mundane with a sense of urgency and importance. In short, it's a film that has a dozen negative reviews on IMDb because people didn't have a clue what they were handed, and were upset that they didn't get a typical narrative driven genre movie when they were given something far more rare, and important... they were given a chance, driven entirely by madness and love, the result of which is far more than its individual parts could ever hope to have been on their own.
"Pretentious symbolism? In MY Western?!"
It's more likely than you think.
Every piece of thought out criticism seems to imply that the film is an allegory for the Post-Soviet existence of his homeland. If that's true, and I don't know nearly enough about Poland as a culture to say it is or isn't, I can't say it stuck out as anything unusual in the context of the story as it's told. As I've said, it's very broad-strokes storytelling with a mute hero, so if the drunkard sheriff reminding everyone in town "there'll be no hanging without the law!" as everyone rounds up their weapons and starts building a platform to do just that, it doesn't seem out of character for the universe the film takes place in.
The landscapes on display are beautiful, scenic wastelands that could well act as a hellish wasteland but are given enough room to breathe and become majestic expanses of a world not ever before seen in American or Italian westerns. Conversely, the interiors are all dark and grubby, intentionally drained of color and cast the miserable little town as a literal expanse of lifeless nothing. Only the deep crimson hue of blood ever breaks the silence of the unnamed town... well that and tomatoes, I guess. The film looks scrumptious, always, and that makes Lionsgate's treatment of it all the more shameful... but we'll get to that shortly. In many ways it's the very essence, the boiled down concentrate of the Spaghetti Western, and it looks the part at every turn. If Miike's take was to spoof the essence of the cinematic Old West, this was to consume every part of that aesthetic, being perhaps the ultimate Neo-Western at the expense of any narrative complexity.
Acting is pretty good across the board, though amusingly Kilmer's presence is something that literally could have been carried out by a mannequin; he doesn't talk or blink or even fucking move. He's a corpse from the first frame to the last, serving as a framing device rather than a character, and supposedly the film's producers approached him at a festival with a literal bag full of $50,000 and asked him to shoot for one day, without any lines. He took the bait, and bam, like that there was exactly one name in this movie that might be recognized outside of Eastern Europe. Personally, I think these guys got fleeced, but whatever. The rest of the cast are native Polish actors who struggle - just occasionally - with English pronunciation, but it's nowhere near as disastrous and comical as the pidgin "Engrish" in Miike's attempt at much the same style. There's a sense of humor, and many of the characters have tics that are funny, but nobody is given nothing to do; every character has some axe to grind, and every actor has tried to draw something out of it, even when the simplistic narrative gives them far too little wiggle room."Minimalist" is the word I'm looking for; and if you can accept these performances for what they are, archetypes with a twist, they work.
The Lionsgate DVD is a hot mess, and that's a real shame. Anamorphic, interlaced NTSC at roughly 1.75:1, the film is obviously a pan-scan "16X9 Full Frame" version made for broadcast from its original 2.35:1 scope. There's just no other sane excuse for shots like this to happen, considering how gorgeous the lighting and set design in this film tends to be:
Uncompressed PNG, with no aspect ratio correction.
As if to quell any doubts I had, the shot of "The Woman" - where the original 'Summer Love' title would be on theatrical screenings - is letterboxed to about 1.9:1, while the end credits are full blown 2.35:1 scope! Needless to say, the original titles have been replaced, and we get a rather obnoxious animated title for LG's less subtle US title. Under most circumstances I'd recommend tracking down a less compromised release, but... sadly, I don't know if there is one. I think I got this for about five bucks shipped, so I'm not going to bitch too hard, it's just frustrating that such a pleasant surprise of a film - one I only stumbled across purely by accident, at that - got such a shitty presentation, bargain bin or not.
Audio fares better with both 2.0 and 5.1 Dolby audio. The film is presented on a single-layered disc with only a brief gallery and a handful of trailers (including LG's laughably action oriented Dead Man's Bounty trailer), so I can't say the compression for the 95 minute film is even on the radar of things to complain about. This film is crying out for better treatment, but in the meantime, the DVD is dirt cheap (I got mine for about $5 shipped), and can be found on Amazon Instant Video for even less.
While I wouldn't say that the film is perfect - the narrative is simplistic, occasionally the odd shot meant as foreshadowing just seems out of sequence, and Kilmer in particular is more of a distraction than a real hook - I'd still recommend this film to absolutely anyone willing to try something that's as off the wall as it is visually stunning. I can't even guess what Uklanski was trying to say by filtering the iconography of the Spaghetti Western through the medium of the Polish art house, but the results are a raw, mesmerizing experience tinged with Prog Rock and raucous explosions of color, all in the name of a genre that the 21st century just isn't sure what to do with anymore. More than any of the films we've looked at in the Modern Grindhouse cycle so far, this one is absolutely recommended.