The second Spaghetti Western double feature to hit Blu-ray from budget release superheroes Mill Creek Entertainment teams up two of the finest examples the genre has to offer, The Grand Duel starring Lee Van Cleef and Keoma starring Franco Nero. While very different from one another, both films are great in their own way and absolutely worth checking out for fans of the genre. Let's take a look...
The Grand Duel:
Giancarlo Santi's 1972 film, also known as The Big Showdown (which is what appears on the title card for the print used for this release), follows a man named Sheriff Clayton (Lee Van Cleef) who gets his mitts on a wanted man named Philip Wermeer (Alberto Dentice credited as Peter O'Brien) who has been accused of calling the patriarch of the powerful Saxon family. When a gang of bounty hunters show up with the intention of taking Wermeer in, dead or alive and whether Clayton likes it or not, he helps him escape but the pair soon hook up again on the way to Saxon City where the three surviving sons of the murdered man intend to see Wermeer hang for his crimes.
As the story progresses, Clayton and Wermeer learn the truth about one another and form a begrudging alliance - as it turns out, Wemeer wants to avenge the death of his own father, while Vermeer, who we learn has been stripped of his star, wants justice.
Stylishly directed with all the close ups and wide angle shots you'd expect from a director who did his time helping out Sergio Leone (he was the second unit director on The Good, The Bad And The Ugly as well as Once Upon A Time In The West), The Grand Duel features Lee Van Cleef in one of the coolest roles of his career. Here he's almost beyond human, an unstoppable force able to catch bullets in his teeth and hit his targets with his six shooters without even looking at them. He's as tough as nails and as hard as they come but so too is he fair and just. Van Cleef plays the role with as much poise and 'cool' as you would want him too, never overreaching or chewing the scenery, instead using his tough guy looks and dangerous eyes to say as much with a knowing glance as he does with any spoken dialogue. Dentice is also good here, and if his character isn't quite as memorable, he makes a fun foil for Van Cleef. On top of that the movie also benefits immensely from a great soundtrack composed by Luis Bacalov (it's so good that Quentin Tarantino pilfered it and recycled it in Kill Bill!). It's one of those movies that gets everything right, the perfect mix of action and humor, tension and heart and it's got some interesting characters and a few cool plot twists as well.
If it isn't the most realistic western ever made - see the aforementioned comment about Van Cleef catching a bullet in his teeth or witness early on the scene in which Dentice is launched over a building by using a wagon as a launch pad - it's definitely tops when it comes to fun and entertainment. You get the impression that the two leads are supposed to be larger than life and as such, they behave in ways that aren't necessarily within the realm of possibility. It hardly matters by the time the end credits hit the screen, because you'll be so wrapped up in cheering on the good guys that you won't care. If may not be particularly deep or thought provoking and it may not turn the genre on its head, but it sure is entertaining.
Made a few years after our first feature, the great Enzo Castellari, he of Inglorious Bastards and The New Barbarians fame (among plenty of other films from the heyday of Italian genre movies) directed Keoma in 1976. Franco Nero stars as a 'half-breed' named Keoma - part Native American Indian and part Caucasian. After serving through the Civil War, he returns to his now plague infested hometown only to find that a former Confederate soldier named Caldwell (Donald O'Brien) and his gang of mercenaries are ruling it with an iron fist and exploiting the population.
Normally this would be enough to anger any man, but when Keoma finds out that his three half-brothers - Butch (Orso Maria Guerrini), Sam (Joshua Sinclair), and Lenny (Antonio Marsina) - have teamed with Caldwell and are part of his gang, he's livid. Of course, they're none too happy to see him back in town and make it quite clear that they'd like him to leave and never come back, but we wouldn't have much of a movie if Keoma were to listen to them. Soon enough, he teams up with George (Woody Strode) , an alcoholic ranch hand that used to work with his father, to set things right and bring peace back to the town.
Set to a bizarre folk music soundtrack, Keoma tends to polarize western fans likely because it is anything but typical. Quite dark in tone and in narrative structure, the movie casts Nero as an unlikely antihero dressed more like a hippy than a cowboy. It's quite a violent film and it definitely delivers on the action but it's a movie that has as many critics as it does fans. And that's a shame, because it really is quite a very well made film. Nero is excellent here, playing the role with the right mix of dramatic poise and tough guy posturing to make it work even if there are times where we're wholly cognizant of his heritage and how it doesn't quite match his character's background. Woody Strode is also great here, playing one of the strongest roles of his career and managing to make us feel for him, even if we know the mistakes he has made in his life are his and his alone. The supporting cast - villains played by Guerrini, Sinclair and Marsina and the love interest for the lead played by the lovely Olga Karlatos - are also fine, but this show belongs to Nero and to a lesser extent to Strode.
Castellari keeps the action moving fast and properly framed, using some great slow motion in the shoot out scenes that'll automatically make you think of Sam Peckinpah's work, and using some interesting camera angles to emphasize certain characteristics of the various players that populate this world. It's all set against a gloomy and dreary looking backdrop that is as good as stand-in for Hell as anything else you might imagine.
Both films are presented in 2.351 widescreen in 1080p high definition AVC encoded transfers. The Grand Duel is the best looking of the two, even if it's got its share of minor print damage here and there. The image is quite detailed and features nice colors and is quite natural and film like in appearance. Close up shots of Lee Van Cleef's face reveal all the character you'd want to see while texture looks good as can be noticed on shots focusing on the various outfits worn by the characters in the movie. Black levels are good if not quite perfect and overall, the movie really shines quite nicely in high definition while still remaining gritty enough to feel like it should feel. Keoma, on the other, doesn't fare quite as well. While the image has less print damage and is slightly cleaner, it features the same anomalies that have popped up on other recent Blu-ray releases of Italian genre films, primarily from Blue Underground. What this means is that there are fairly noticeable moments in the movie where grain will clump around objects in the foreground and look unnatural. While the transfer certainly does offer up quite a bit more detail and much better color reproduction than the DVD did, it's not on the same level as the first feature and whatever digital tomfoolery that has been employed here to clean it up will likely irk videophiles to a certain extent.
Both films are given English language DTS-HD 2.0 Mono mixes, no alternate language subtitles or dubs are provided. Both tracks are serviceable but neither are particularly impressive. There are moments of hiss and distortion scattered throughout and the levels jump around a bit particularly on the first movie - you may find yourself reaching for the remote when the score kicks in as it seems quite a bit louder than the rest of the film. There are also moments in both movies where the high end of the mix sounds a little shrill and neither film has much depth. With that said, yeah, these mixes are serviceable and you can understand the dialogue and follow things without any issues at all. More cleanup work in this department certainly would have been welcome but that didn't happen.
Aside from some animated menus and chapter stops, the only extras are trailers for each of the two features (both presented in HD).
This isn't a perfect release but it is a pretty good one despite the fact that Keoma's transfer is kind of weird and that the audio isn't going to blow you away. Both films are excellent examples of the Spaghetti Western at its best, The Grand Duel working really well as a fairly standard action film with some decent comedic elements and Keoma taking a more artistic and cerebral approach, almost playing like an arthouse film at times. There isn't much in the way of extras, but given that this disc is (at the time of this writing) selling for six bucks on Amazon, it's hard not to recommend it.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.