The Mercenary Blu-ray Review (originally published 2017)
Updated: Mar 11, 2020
He Sells Death to the Highest Bidder! Sergei ‘The Polack’ Kowalski (Franco Nero) is a mercenary who’s only out for himself and a few dollars. He joins up with a Mexican peasant-turned-revolutionary, Paco Roman (Tony Musante) to rob a silver mine in Texas. 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 gang. 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. (From Kino’s official synopsis)
Sergio Corbucci was, along with Sergio Leone, one of the major instigators of Italy’s ‘spaghetti western’ boom in the 1960s. He failed to ignite much interest with his first attempts at the genre – The Grand Canyon Massacre (Italian: Massacro al Grande Canyon, 1964) – but had an early hit with Minnesota Clay (1964), which was released only months after Leone’s smash hit, A Fistful of Dollars (Italian: Per un pugno di dollari, 1964). Both films borrowed story elements from Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961), in which a stranger with unclear motivations plays two sides of a local conflict against each other. Corbucci then reused Yojimbo again for his most popular and enduring film with 1966’s Django. Meanwhile, the same year Django kicked up a storm and birthed a hundred similarly titled clones, Damiano Damiani and Sergio Sollima released a pair of westerns that reconditioned Corbucci and Leone’s conventions into Leftist creeds. These two movies – Bullet for the General (Italian: El Chuncho, Quien Sabe?) and The Big Gundown (Italian: La Resa dei Conti) – initiated a sub-movement known as the Zapata westerns. Named for revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, these films are largely set during the Mexican Revolution and utilize the historical conflict as an allegory for then modern (mid ‘60s to mid ‘70s) European politics. Outside of their Socialist/Communist messages, they also developed their own storytelling tropes.
Despite being an outspoken Leftist, Corbucci’s earlier westerns weren’t overtly political; though, like Leone and Sam Peckinpah, it was easy enough to draw parallels between his films and real-world events. He followed up Django with his three most Hollywood-friendly westerns – Johnny Oro (aka: Ringo and his Golden Pistol, 1966), Navajo Joe (1966), and The Hellbenders (Italian: I Crudeli; aka: The Cruel Ones, 1967) – before finally entering the Zapata western arena with The Mercenary (Italian: Il Mercenario; aka: A Professional Gun, 1968). The Mercenary followed traditionally cynical tropes, infused its characters with typical Zapata traits, and filtered everything through the essential Corbucci lens of moralism and violence. It went on to become particularly popular among spaghetti western fans and critics, but has never felt one of Corbucci’s most polished or artistically satisfying efforts. Like Minnesota Clay or Johnny Oro, it feels like a rushed rough draft that owes too much to other filmmakers. Perhaps this was because the director spent so much of his creative energy making his masterpiece, The Great Silence (Italian: Il grande silenzio), later that same year. Whatever the case, Corbucci himself apparently shared this sentiment, because he basically remade The Mercenary as Compañeros (Italian: Vamos a Matar Compañeros) in 1970.
Some of the similarities between the films can be attributed to the patterns of previous spaghettis – especially those that followed Bullet for the General’s model by pairing an idealist with a jaded outsider and sticking them in the middle of a revolutionary war. The correlations between set-pieces can probably be written off as call-backs, Corbucci simply recycling the action sequences he liked, or recycling the ones he thought he didn’t get right the first time around. However, the shared cast and character types are unequivocally specific. In The Mercenary, Franco Nero plays Sergei ‘The Polack’ Kowalski, a Polish mercenary/arms dealer who hopes to exploit the Mexican revolution for profit. In Compañeros, he plays Yodlaf ‘The Penguin’ Peterson, a Swedish mercenary/arms dealer who hopes to exploit the Mexican revolution for profit (Nero’s narration also bookends both movies). In The Mercenary, Jack Palance plays Curly, a foppish, curly-haired psychopath that cuts a cruel swath across the desert while plotting revenge against The Polack. In Compañeros, he plays John, a brutal eccentric with a pet hawk, a marijuana habit, and a metal hand, that cuts a cruel swath across the desert while plotting revenge against The Penguin. Milián only appears in Compañeros, but he and Tony Musante (who later appeared in Dario Argento’s Bird with the Crystal Plumage, 1970) play very similar ‘out-of-his-element’ Mexican peasants who bumble their way into high-profile revolutionary roles.
It’s frustrating that more genre scholars and fans don’t agree that Compañeros is the superior version of The Mercenary’s template. Many reference books on the subject dismiss the film as a silly imitation of its predecessor. This sentiment leads me to assume that people expect and prefer Corbucci when he’s indulging in bitter ironies. In defense of those people, it’s worth noting that most of the director’s comedies adhere to archaic Italian screwball formulas that are usually more obnoxious than funny. On the other hand, I myself have done the opposite – dismissed The Mercenary because I prefer the wild antics of Compañeros – so I used this Blu-ray rewatch as an excuse to revisit some of my own opinions. The Mercenary is definitely the more visceral bourgeoisie takedown and its mean streak fits the mercilessness of Django and The Great Silence. This extends to its ultimately more pessimistic ending. Outside of the massively bloody finale, Corbucci’s action direction is choppier (quite a bit of violence and stunt work takes place between frames, making it appear that the filmmakers were unable to get the coverage they wanted), but he also conceived of some standout gags that he didn’t reuse in later films, such as the bit where The Polack calmly eats eggs and checks items off of his to-do list while watching Paco’s bandits wreak havoc or the scene where he uses a prostitute’s nude backside to illustrate the hardships of rebellion.
It’s probably worth noting that Corbucci made one movie between The Mercenary and Compañeros called The Specialists (Italian: Gli specialisti, 1969) that has a similar name (The Specialist versus The Professional), but is ultimately a typical revenge western that has little to do with politics or comedy.
Despite its similarities to Compañeros, The Mercenary was not included alongside its twin when Anchor Bay and, later, Blue Underground released a small group of spaghettis on DVD. Instead, it ended up being one of many Italian westerns sort of owned by MGM. I say sort of, because its copyright seems to be iffy and there were a number of pan & scan VHS and VHS-quality DVDs released by various budget companies over the years (usually under the Professional Gun title and with Jack Palance on the cover). Like most of the MGM spaghettis (really most of the studio’s westerns, period), an HD version periodically popped up on television and streaming services over the years. The same scan was used for Koch Media’s German Blu-ray release and I am including screen caps from that disc on this page, so that you can compare them to Kino Lorber’s US Blu-ray debut (Kino caps on top, Koch on the bottom), which is also the film’s widescreen 2.35:1 debut in this region. As you can probably see, they’re close to identical, from their detail levels and color quality, all the way down to print and compression-based artifacts (especially the white spots/blobs that flit around some sequences). So, North American fans aren’t getting a superior product, but they aren’t getting an inferior one, either. Both transfers are textbook MGM’s HD scans – they’re a-okay with weakish textures, slightly blotchy grain, and minimal CRT machine noise. Element separation and depth are actually better than average for the studio, while black levels are a bit on the gray side.
The Mercenary includes only its original English mono soundtrack in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. Here’s the part where I remind everyone that these movies were shot without sound and with international casts often speaking different languages from scene to scene. There is no ‘official’ language track and the English track is actually preferred, because Nero, Musante, and Palance all dub themselves. That said, it’s always nice to have the option to hear the Italian dub, which I supposed gives the Koch disc a slight edge over this one. The sound quality is a bit thin, but no thinner than you’d typically hear from a spaghetti western track. Distortion is minimal at high volume, dialogue occasionally barrels over the effects work, and the sound floor is low for quieter scenes. The exciting and memorable score was supplied by the godfather of the spaghetti western sound, Ennio Morricone. The Mercenary and Compañeros were probably his two most traditionally Mexican infused compositions, including full-bore mariachi-inspired bits. The main theme was used to great effect by Quentin Tarantino in Kill Bill: Volume 2), when Beatrix musters her strength and breaks out of her coffin.
Commentary with filmmaker Alex Cox – Alex Cox, best known as the director of Repo Man (1984), Straight to Hell (1987), and Walker (1987), is also the author of 10,000 Ways to Die: A Director’s Take on the Spaghetti Western (Kamera Books, 2009) and one of the most prominent experts on all things Italian western. Similar to his commentary on Kino’s same-day release of Giulio Petroni’s Death Rides a Horse (1967), Cox leaves a little too much blank space for me to consider this track a complete success, but there’s less of it than that track. When he is talking, he offers interesting and informative perspectives on the film, its counterparts, and the filmmakers.
Mercenario in Pictures and Promoting Mercenario animated image galleries, set to selections from Morricone’s score.
North American trailer and trailers for other Kino spaghetti western releases
For the record, Koch release does include two featurettes that didn’t make the jump to Kino’s disc – Die Regeln der Revolution, interviews with Nero, Musante, Corbucci, Luciano Vincenzoni, and Eugenio Martin, and Drehorte: Damals und heute, which are now & then location comparisons.
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Full-sized versions can (currently) only be accessed by right-clicking/ctrl-clicking the images and opening them in a new window/tab. Note that there will be some JPG compression.