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Play Dirty

MGM // PG // April 24, 2007
List Price: $14.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by DVD Savant | posted May 1, 2007 | E-mail the Author

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Andre De Toth's superb Play Dirty gives Robert Aldrich's The Dirty Dozen a run for its money. Its own commercial hopes were dashed in a welter of criminals-as-soldiers wannabe thrillers like the bloated The Devil's Brigade. Excellent acting, a big scale production and taut direction on Spanish locations enliven what has to be the most agreeably cynical war film script ever. Play Dirty plays for keeps: if Kirk Douglas' morally outraged officer from Paths of Glory witnessed the nasty politics in this picture, he'd drop dead from shock.


Having consistently failed in his commando missions, Col. Masters (Nigel Green) wins a reprieve from the double-dealing Brigadier General Blore (Harry Andrews) by offering to destroy a Nazi fuel dump way behind the North African battle lines. Masters sends out a seven-man patrol headed by the mercenary Captain Cyril Leech (Nigel Davenport) but technically commanded by Captain Douglas (Michael Caine), an oil supply officer previously attached to rearward duties. Douglas and Leech immediately butt heads over command and procedure, especially when Leech refuses to follow orders and insolently rushes to prove that Douglas' notions of fair play are completely inappropriate in the field. Douglas makes a solid contribution to the mission but Leech has the inside track on their true situation: Blore and Masters back at H.Q. double-cross them at every opportunity. For starters, the commanders dispatch a second official Army unit with the exact same mission. They fully expect that Leech and Douglas' group of desert pirates will be killed serving as decoys for the 'official' strike force.

LIke a junior exec fighting for his perks and stock options, the sweaty Col. Masters shows his imperious Brigadier Blore photos of a German oil dump, "taken by one of those Brownies he's been giving to his Arab agents." Blore approves the plan but immediately assigns the same mission to his own officer, using Masters' exact same arguments and taking credit for the whole idea. Master's pack of irregular bandits will go first to serve as cover for the real mission. Perfect. Blore wants Masters' outfit to be annihilated before they can embarrass him again, or, God forbid, succeed and steal some of his glory.

In between slaughtering untrustworthy Arabs and hauling their vehicles up a ridiculously steep mountain (shades of Fitzcarraldo), Douglas and Leech come to terms with their situation. The dauntless missions in movies like The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Guns of Navarone have their complexities, but their commanders in general act in good faith. In Play Dirty, only an inexperienced officer like Caine's Douglas seems unaware what little part loyalty plays in Special Ops strategy. As soon as Captain Leech sees the second column of British trucks, he realizes that Brig. Blore has sold them out. Eventually, Colonel Masters will betray them as well. Masters dryly asserts that "War is a criminal enterprise. I fight it with criminals." He's adopted the ethics of a sewer snake, because everyone above him in the chain of command is doing the exact same thing.

Leech sneers at Douglas' ethical protests but has a vested interest in keeping him alive, as he's been promised 2,000 pounds to bring him back in one piece. The rest of the patrol is made up of Arab, Greek and Cypriot mercenaries whose loyalty can be counted on only as long as the mission goes well. They loot bodies and laugh openly at Douglas' attempts at command; as soon as the officers' backs are turned, they try to rape a hardy German nurse (Vivian Pickles) they've kidnapped to care for one of their wounded. The group's Arab guides are a laughing pair of homosexuals that can be relied on as much as Kostos Manov (Takis Emmanouel), a Greek who saves Douglas from a particularly devilish German booby trap.

Michael Caine is masterful as Douglas, a far less idealistic officer than his breakthrough role in Zulu. The unsung Nigel Davenport is solidly convincing as a crooked sea captain recruited right out of a prison. Play Dirty ends up as an engaging caper picture, one with devastating turns of fortune that would become terrible spoilers if revealed here. Surprisingly, the cynical tone doesn't extend to the attitude of the filmmakers. Andre De Toth avoids stereotypes and easy messages, making us care about this worst-case-scenario mission even when the bad guys prove to be the leaders back at camp. The soldiers tune to American, German and Italian radio stations every time they change uniforms, a gambit that courts disaster when Douglas forgets to remove his British identity tag. The physical challenges of the desert seem real and the soldiers look like they've really dragged themselves across a wasteland. When driving over miles of stubborn rocks, those Jeep tires give out very quickly. Play Dirty is a really good, largely un-shown war picture, and will be an exciting discovery for action fans tired of cornball Dirty Dozen sequels.

Fox is distributing MGM DVD product now, and obviously someone there asked why the heck MGM had been sitting on such a good war picture all this time. Play Dirty is presented in a crystal-clear enhanced transfer that displays Edward Scaife's widescreen Panavision vistas to great advantage - this movie has better landscapes than the average western. Tracks are available in English 2-channel stereo and English, Spanish and French mono. Did I forget to say that this is a great movie? 2

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Play Dirty rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Not a single one.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 27, 2007


1. The packaging for the disc lists the Aspect Ratio as 1.85:1. This is an error; the disc is encoded with a correct Panavision 2.35:1 screen shape.

2. When a show is this good, I don't mind aggressively recommending it.The Amazon price (as of April 27, 2007) is particularly low.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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