Directed by Gianfranco Parolini (credited as Frank Kramer), a fairly prolific writer and director of Spaghetti Westerns, sword and sandal pictures and action movies in the sixties and seventies, Sabata stars steely eyed Lee Van Cleef as a bounty hunter who saunters into Daugherty City right around the time that a cool one hundred grand is stolen from the local bank. The money belonged to the army and the guards who were left in charge are found murdered the next day. That morning, Sabata tracks down the stolen money and takes down the bandits, managing to bring back both their corpses and a trunk full of cash.
Through a bit of snooping around, Sabata figures out that a big wig in town named Stengel (Franco Ressel) was behind the robbery in the first place. He tries to use this to his advantage which in turn sees Stengal send various killers after him, but Stengal's got more than that in his favor, in fact he's got pretty much every high ranking official in town on his payroll. Sabata, however, is faster on the draw than anyone around. That is until the man called Banjo (William Berger), named after the instrument he plays that secretly doubles as a rifle, arrives in town. While at first Banjo seems more interested in a beautiful show girl named Jane (Linda Veras), you know it's only a matter of time until their uneasy friendship shifts. Sabata's only allies during all of this are a whiskey soaked former soldier named Carrincha (Ignazio Spalla) and a mute Indian named Alley Cat (Aldo Canti) with a penchant for acrobatics and dramatic back flips.
Sabata might be more gimmicky than your average Spaghetti Western but that doesn't mean it isn't a whole lot of fun. Berger's banjo rifle is a little much as is his tendency to ‘jingle' as he walks thanks to his odd wardrobe choices. Sabata (we assume that is Van Cleef's character's name, though he's never actually called that) has a trick pistol and a knack for using decoys and mirrors to outsmart his foes. Alley Cat flips around like a circus performer, silently eluding his foes. Stengal, a rather flamboyant man with an obvious disdain for the lower class, has built himself custom dueling stages in his office. Everyone here has ‘something' that makes them quirky or unique, sometimes for comedic purposes and sometimes, well, just because. This makes the movie a little hard to take seriously but at the same time, it never really asks us to do that in the first place. It's not a flat out comedy the way that a lot of the Terrance Hill and Bud Spencer team ups were, but neither does it deal in mud, blood and carnage the way that something darker, like Corbucci's Django does.
The cast help to make this more than it would have been with a lesser team assembled in front of the camera. Berger, who Eurocult fans will definitely recognize (he played the priest in Jess Franco's Love Letters Of A Portuguese Nun!) has a calm, cool and collected screen presence that suits the character nicely while Spalla exists pretty much entirely for comedic reasons (the back and forth between he and Van Cleef is quite funn). Veras is on hand to give the movie some sex appeal, she's the only female character of any substance whatsoever and even still comes up short in that regard, but she sure is pretty. Franco Ressel plays his villain, who may or may not be gay (the movie infers it in spots but never really goes further than that), is flamboyant and fancy and not one to get his hands dirty as made evident by his white dueling gloves. This works in the context of the story and he actually gets genuinely menacing towards the end of the movie.
Van Cleef, however, is the real star of the film. He's as steely-eyed and shifty looking as ever and he seems to be having a good time here. He's tough when he needs to be but not without a sense of humor and that distinctly cool look of his always makes it look like he's up to no good. He's got some obvious enthusiasm for the part here and the frequent close ups of his eyes (borrowing from Leone's tactics) help to add menace and intensity to certain scenes. Wrap all of this up with some nice photography of both the Spanish desert locations and what are obviously studio sets and it's easy to see why Sabata has remained a fan favorite over the years.
Sabata arrives on Blu-ray in AVC encoded 1080p high definition framed at 2.35.1 widescreen. While some shots look a little on the soft side, for the most part this is a pretty solid picture. Some minor print damage shows up throughout, mostly in the form of small white specks rather than giant scratches or emulsion spots, while colors are nicely reproduced. Detail in close ups, which are used frequently in the Leone tradition, benefit the most but medium and long distance shots improve here too. Black levels aren't quite reference quality but they are certainly solid enough and overall this high definition presentation surpasses the previous DVD from MGM in some very noticeable and appreciable ways.
The English language DTS-HD 2.0 Mono, there are no alternate languages or subtitles of any kind provided. Dialogue is pretty clear, easy enough to follow, while the score has a reasonable amount of depth to it. The sound effects, gun shots in particular, are a little bit thin sounding but the movie has always sounded like this on DVD and VHS before it so that's really not a shock. There are no issues with any hiss or distortion and the levels are properly balanced. This isn't a fancy track but it gets the job done.
The only extra on the disc, aside from a static menu and chapter selection, is the film's original theatrical trailer.
Sabata might be on the lighter side of the Spaghetti Western spectrum but for the most part it works and it works well. Van Cleef plays things straight enough to carry the picture while the supporting performances from the rest of the cast help to make the comedy effective. There's some good action here, a strong score and good cinematography and most importantly, it's fun. The Blu-ray from Kino is unfortunately light on extras and the presentation isn't mind blowing but it does offer a noticeable upgrade over the equally barebones DVD release. Recommended.
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.