Released just a year and a half after the record-shattering success of A Fistful of Dollars, the skeleton of Django's story doesn't veer too far away from Sergio Leone's seminal Spaghetti Western: a rundown town has been ravaged by violence and corruption, a mysterious gunslinger stands in the middle of two warring factions, he alternates between slaughtering them and skillfully manipulating whoever's left standing, and then he's savagely beaten and left for dead before the final shootout. Hell, both movies even have a gold heist. In lesser hands, Django probably would've come across as just another shameless knockoff, but this Spaghetti Western is so damned good that it doesn't just stand on its own but practically eclipses what Leone had shot just a couple of years earlier. Django is even bleaker and more pessimistic than A Fistful of Dollars. There's barely a spark of life in this town, and neither of the warring factions can even be bothered to stay there more than a few hours at a time. All that's left is the saloon, the skeletal remains of what was once the main thoroughfare, and a cemetery. It's caked in mud and surrounded by rocks, desert sand, and dying grass. These haunting visuals immediately set the tone for what's to follow, especially when paired with the sight of a man dragging a coffin through its muddy streets. Director Sergio Corbucci litters the screen with all sorts of evocative imagery, from the
...and then there's Django himself. As much as I love Leone's Dollars trilogy, Franco Nero just comes across as a much harder-edged badass than Clint Eastwood ever did, and when the big reveal comes -- when Django finally opens the coffin and whips out what's inside -- what follows is hand-to-God one of the most fucking awesome action sequences in any flick I've ever come across. It's a game of oneupsmanship, with Corbucci taking the best parts of A Fistful of Dollars and jabbing an oversized syringe of adrenaline straight into its heart. The body count is enormous. The brawl in the bar isn't just a few punches being traded...dozens of hits are thrown, and it doesn't end until damn near every table in the place is overturned and someone's laying down in a pool of his own blood. The Stranger in the first of Leone's Westerns seems more like a ghost...some supernatural force that's summoned to this town and disappears just as quickly. Django has a kind of otherworldly quality to him too but still has more dimension. Hell, he has a name, so that's one thing that sets this gunslinger apart, but he's also eventually given a clear motive for strolling into this waking nightmare. Django's an even more skillful manipulator than The Stranger, and as I'd start to see his schemes take shape, I couldn't help but cackle at how brilliant it all is. Django balances those glimmers of characterization and its overall story exceptionally well with the action. The pace never has a chance to drag, and the movie never stops dead in its tracks because there's some plot point it feels the need to overexplain. It's lean, efficient, and brutal.
Django didn't make much of an impact on these shores, but the movie was a colossal success throughout the world, shattering box office records and inspiring dozens upon dozens of unofficial sequels that threw "Django" somewhere in the title despite having nothing to do with the original. It's not hard to see why. There are a few action movies that just seem perfect to me, like Die Hard and Predator. Without hesitation, I'd rank Django up there with those too. Violent, sticky, depraved, and still pretty damned clever in its own right, this is just a hell of an action/exploitation flick, and if you only know Django by reputation, this is a movie you desperately need to discover on Blu-ray. Highly Recommended.
Django opens with a disclaimer about how much the original negative had weathered over the decades and how the producers of this Blu-ray disc hope those defects won't get in the way of anyone's enjoyment of the film. Ignore it: Blue Underground has absolutely nothing to apologize for with their practically superhuman work here.
To try to put all that in perspective, here's a screengrab from MGM's Blu-ray release of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, a film that underwent a lavish restoration to the tune of many hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The once-crisp photography of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly has been softened excessively, the colors seem kind of washed out, and heavy-handed noise reduction has smeared away any semblance of fine detail and every last trace of the texture of its film grain. Especially considering that this is one of the standout titles in MGM's back catalog, its shoddy presentation on Blu-ray on these shores is shameful and embarrassing.
On the other hand, take a look at what Blue Underground was able to pull off with Django:
I've made it a point to pick up every last one of the company's high definition releases, and no matter how dizzyingly high I set my expectations for one of their Blu-ray discs, Blue Underground almost always find some way to top them. Django doesn't just look amazing for a low-budget Spaghetti Western whose fiftieth anniversary is just a few years off on the horizon; it looks amazing, period. The 1.66:1 image doesn't suffer from any signs of excessive filtering or awkward digital manipulation. I can't shake the feeling that I'm looking at just about every last granule of film grain, and I consider that to be a very good thing. This gritty texture complements the look and feel of Django exceptionally well, and it'd be an altogether different movie if the grain had been smeared away. The bleak pessimism of the film is reflected in its palette, and though this is a movie heavy on ashen grays and muddy browns, Django's colors still come through exceptionally well whenever they have half a chance.
Detail...clarity...the sense of texture -- the things that really set a Blu-ray release apart from a standard issue DVD -- that's where Django really excels. As impressed as I've been with so many of Blue Underground's releases on Blu-ray...as much as I've come to expect nothing but the best out of them...I'm still floored by the level of fine detail they're able to reproduce here. Even when the camera eases back, I feel as if I can clearly discern each and every pore, every bit of stubble, and every grain of sand. This 1080p presentation is so revealing that I can make out the stray fibers on the casts' hats and the texture of their make-up. Very fine, intricate patterns are rendered without any moire or distortion. Again, I didn't just score Django a perfect five stars because it's a low-budget movie from the mid-'60s that has me rounding on a curve. I'd rank the level of clarity and detail belted out here against anything the bigger studios are churning out for their brand new movies too.
As for that disclaimer that opens the film, there are some incredibly minor issues with the source. A tiny handful of shots are unusually soft compared to the rest of the movie. A few frames warp and wobble slightly, a discolored splotch of what looks like water damage will occasionally creep in, or there'll be just a bit of fluttering in the colors on-screen. None of these are particularly distracting, I personally don't think they're enough to warrant that sort of disclaimer at all, and obviously these issues are so easily overlooked that I still feel comfortable giving Django's presentation a full five-star rating in the sidebar over there. It's definitely worth noting that there's no speckling to get in the way, and whatever nicks and tears the original negative may have suffered over the years have all been cleaned up flawlessly.
Even with the many thousands of titles on Blu-ray at the moment, Django easily ranks as one of the most exceptional presentations on the format. This is a spectacular effort on the part of Blue Underground, and Django is well-worth upgrading for those who've already picked up the DVD and is essential viewing for anyone with even the slightest fascination with Spaghetti Westerns.
Django is presented on a dual-layer Blu-ray disc. Having that sort of headroom is essential for a movie with this sort of grain structure, and its AVC encode never once buckles under the weight of all that grain. The image is also pillarboxed to preserve Django's original aspect ratio of 1.66:1.
On the technical end of things, both soundtracks are reasonably solid. The English version has a trebly, more brittle quality to it. This is especially apparent as the title track is being belted out although the differences are less dramatic after that. The English soundtrack is cleaner while some hiss more noticeably lurks in the background of the Italian audio. Although I did take the time to do a few quick comparisons, I only listened to the Italian soundtrack in full. Its audio isn't marred by any clicks or pops, and the dialogue and sound effects stems show their age but generally come through about as well as expected. The audio certainly isn't as much of a revelation as the high definition visuals are, no, but it's a solid effort just the same, and I don't have any major complaints.
Along with the lossless monaural soundtracks, subtitles are offered in English (traditional and SDH), French, and Spanish. The English subtitles are translated from the Italian soundtrack rather than just transcribing the clunkier dialogue from the English track.
Django opens with an optional thirty second introduction by Franco Nero.
The Final Word
A Fistful of Dollars may have set the template that so many of Italy's Westerns would follow, but Django sharpened it to a razor's edge. The stark, gloomy atmosphere, a savagely violent streak that's still staggering today, an understatedly brilliant sense of humor, a phenomenal lead performance by Franco Nero, and the unforgettable imagery of a gunslinger dragging a coffin behind him...Django is just a hell of a movie, and its popularity and influence -- sparking dozens upon dozens of knockoffs and unofficial sequels -- cannot be overstated. Blue Underground has done a spectacular job bringing the film to Blu-ray, hammering out one of the most breathtakingly detailed presentations I've caught on the format, period. Very, very Highly Recommended, and here's hoping the rest of Blue Underground's Spaghetti Westerns aren't too far off on the horizon.
A Few More Screengrabs...