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In the late 1960s American film companies smarting from falling box office revenues shut down their UK operations and withdrew some of their financing from British studios. The once-thriving UK film industry collapsed, fast and hard. This left the field open for economical wildcat producers who knew how to put an international deal together. 1970's The Last Grenade is an action-adventure film with a stellar cast any producer would envy, but it isn't in the tradition of quality British filmmaking. A gritty story of a personal vendetta between mercenaries, it's more like the cheapjack US-Filipino films that would dominate in the cut-price '70s. Just the same, with the stalwart action hero Stanley Baker on board, combat fans liked The Last Grenade's constant explosions and nihilistic attitude.
Some critics had already been outraged by the callousness shown in Jack Cardiff's 1968 The Mercenaries, aka Dark of the Sun, a bloody slice of escapism in the war-torn Congo starring Rod Taylor. The Last Grenade proffers the same attitude with a fraction of the production value but falls short of the mark in several ways.
The film's cast is undeniably impressive. Soldier of fortune Harry Grigsby (Stanley Baker) is one mean S.O.B., a hard-bitten 42 year-old who takes jobs that the British Army can't do. Genteel General Charles Whiteley (Richard Attenborough, veddy polite and reserved) is frustrated by the Red Chinese, who have hired their own mercenary criminals, led by the psychotic American renegade Kip Thompson (Alex Cord) to mount military raids in Hong Kong territory. Grigsby is keen to kill Thompson, having been ambushed by him not long before in the Congo. Grigsby lost a lot of men and now wants to get even.
The covert ops team arrives in Hong Kong. Grigsby clashes with Whiteley's beautiful wife Katherine (Honor Blackman) over an incident at an aid center, but it's obvious that the two are attracted to each other. Grigsby's team consists of Scotsman Gordon Mackenzie (Andrew Kier) and freelance soldiers Joe Jackson (Rafer Johnson), Andy Royal (Julian Glover) and Terry Mitchell (John Thaw). They suffer one unlucky setback after another: Grigsby is captured and makes a daring escape; the deranged Thompson appears in a Hong Kong bar to gun down one of Grigsby's team. The mission is complicated by Harry Grigsby's tubercular condition -- and the affair that blooms between the mercenary and Katherine Whiteley while at an R&R hideaway.
The Last Grenade begins with a noisy bang, the first of several action scenes that strain credibility. Thompson attacks Grigsby's Congo camp in an old-fashioned Sikorsky helicopter, gunning down dozens of armed soldiers who somehow cannot get off the two or three shots necessary to knock the 'copter out of the sky. Grigsby stomps around Hong Kong, attracting much more attention than if the Brits discreetly used their own personnel. The soldiers have only to hike a couple of miles across the border to engage in firefights. It's no wonder that they're repeatedly ambushed, as some of them wear brightly colored outfits. Grigsby himself wears a spotted kerchief over a cream-colored coat and a pink sleeveless T-shirt.
All of the actors put in professional effort: Attenborough keeps his composure when he learns that his wife is leaving him and Honor Blackman gives her passion-starved cliché of an Army wife some nice moves. Of the supporting talent only Andrew Keir has much to do beyond pull triggers and look tough. Julian Glover does have an excellent set-to in the aforementioned bar shoot-out, holding a pistol on the villain's stomach under a table. Unfortunately, his target is also armed and a quick-draw expert. The moment may have inspired a standoff in Inglourious Basterds. Come to think of it, The Last Grenade is just the kind of exploitation mayhem machine admired by Quentin Tarantino.
The joker in the deck is Alex Cord, who plays the supposedly brilliant Thompson as a freaked out nutcase. Thompson plays with his Colt .45 six-gun, laughs at his own jokes and rubs his temples as if trying to counteract the effects of LSD. He wears a DARTMOUTH sweatshirt, a possible dig at anti-war "terrorists". He's such a gone goose that we wonder how he gets his men to follow him. What's worse is that Alex Cord isn't up to even this level of acting. Thompson comes off as a silly adversary, and not a proto- Colonel Kurtz.
The plot holds a couple of jarring surprises but the script never returns to the excitement level of the opening battle. We're set up for a big bang of a finish (a la the superior The Dogs of War) that never materializes. Editor Ann Chegwidden does her best to compensate via a frantic montage of Grigsby's mental anguish, flutter-cutting director Gordon Flemyng's smash-zoom shots with a beaming close-up of Honor Blackman. It works better than it has a right to. Although the movie takes itself absolutely seriously, by the finish it's pretty much run out of steam.
Director Gordon Flemyng had a long career, mostly in British TV. Once again, the list of talented UK technicians reveals names associated with much classier fare: cameraman Alan Hume, Art Director Tony Pratt, associate producer René Dupont. Composer John Dankworth's active music score references several themes from Gustav Holst's The Planets.
Prominently billed Rafer Johnson must have found somewhere he'd rather be than on the set of this movie, because his character disappears from the story only a few minutes after he's introduced. The most amusing casting is Ray Brooks as a military liaison contact who seems as keen on Grigsby as is the hungry-looking Honor Blackman. Brooks is instantly recognizable as the libidinous Tolen from Richard Lester's The Knack ... and How to Get It -- the fellow who scores with all the "birds" with a minimum of effort.
Scorpion Releasing's DVD of The Last Grenade is an acceptable enhanced widescreen disc of a movie that played off in action double bills with biker movies. The source element provided by the Cinerama Corporation appears to be an indifferent release print, with a few scratches and variable color that frequently shifts from good-looking hues to less appetizing green and blue overtones. But original prints of the film might not have looked much better; the title music cue breaks off in a way that sounds as if nobody bothered to fix a sloppy mix error. With this kind of bomb-throwing, machine gun blasting action show, such details are mostly irrelevant.
The long trailer included on the disc is an original I remember seeing at least six times at movie theaters -- it appears to include every explosion bigger than a firecracker, and seemingly shows most of the film's opening battle.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Last Grenade rates:
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