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Reason to Live, a Reason to Die!, A

Kino // PG // August 18, 2015
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted July 27, 2015 | E-mail the Author

Any movie that opens with that much exposition scrolling across the screen has already failed. It's a crushing disappointment because A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die! bears so much promise. The core of its premise is essentially The Dirty Dozen set against the backdrop of the Civil War. The film stars James Coburn, triumphantly returning to Almería shortly after leading Sergio Leone's similarly exclamatory Duck, You Sucker! We're also talking about a Spaghetti western helmed by Tonino Valerii, the enormously talented director behind Day of Anger and My Name Is Nobody.

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Disgraced though he may be in the eyes of the Union, Colonel Pembroke (James Coburn) weasels his way into an opportunity to redeem himself. Yes, he shoulders the blame for letting Fort Holman fall, but he can retake it and further turn the tide of the war. All he needs is a handful of men. Pembroke doesn't exactly have his choice of the best and brightest, though, instead saddled with one indifferent soldier and a gaggle of condemned men. As the film's title suggests, Pembroke offers them the chance to die in valor rather than face the hangman's noose. To keep this motley crew in line when the gallows are far out of view, he also tells them about the half a million dollars in gold buried near the fort. The chances of them living through the siege are slim, sure, but if they survive, they'll walk away with wealth unimagined.

A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die! gets precisely three things right: casting the charismatic and unerringly reliable James Coburn, bringing in Bud Spencer as the true star of the film, and all the hell that's unleashed in its final half hour. Everything else winds up being kind of an indifferent shrug. Much of the appeal of something like The Dirty Dozen is found in the clashes between numerous strong personalities. The bulk of the condemned men in A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die!, meanwhile, all kind of muddle together. Few of them leave much of an impression, and Spencer's Eli Sampson aside, none of them require more than two or three words at most to fully sum up. Not all of them make it to Fort Holman, and for those who fall along the way...who cares? They're another in a long line of interesting faces rather than proper characters. The Dirty Dozen felt as if the convicted murderers under Lee Marvin's command were a keg of dynamite on the brink of exploding, but that sort of tension never resonates anywhere throughout A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die! It doesn't help that the prologue already spells out who survives the siege.

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Borderline-nothing of interest bridges the journey between these two forts. One of Pembroke's men goes out of his way to shout something close enough to "we're going to blow up Fort Holman! Shit, did I say that out loud?" in a forcefully clumsy attempt at tension during a Confederate family dinner. The pacing is awfully sluggish, with most everything resembling action reserved for the final twenty minutes. Maybe you'll be perched on the edge of your seat at the sight of a rope repeatedly getting stuck on its way up the face of a mountain, but it takes a little more to do it for me.

Someone as unmistakeably New Yawk as Telly Savalas is a bizarre casting choice for a Confederate Major, but that'd be easily shrugged off if A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die! gave him much of anything to do. Savalas is instead almost entirely squandered as Major Ward. A not-exactly-executed counter to an improvised scheme of Sampson's is the closest Ward comes to anything of interest, and the movie would have to clench its fists and try really, really hard to make his brief encounter with Pembroke any more uneventful and anticlimactic. The movie's central "villain" ought to at least have a chance to...I don't know, do something. Still, I can't help but smirk, having watched A Town Called Hell and A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die! back to back. Savalas only appears in the first half of the former and the second half of the latter; between the two movies, he almost has a starring role!

Sampson's infiltration of the fort is inspired and quick-witted, and the finalonly battle of A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die! makes the most of sets repurposed from other Spaghetti westerns. The body count throughout those final moments is staggering, and I'm a cheap date for any Eurowestern with a Gatling gun. I wouldn't say that the action throughout the climax is too little, but it's certainly much too late. Rent It, and even that's being kind of generous.

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Kino Lorber Studio Classics presents A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die! in its truncated American cut that clocks in right at an hour and a half in length.

Don't get too thrown off by how dismal the prologue and opening titles look:

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Though its first four minutes have seemingly been sourced from a many-decades-old video master, those sorts of issues don't rear their head again until the end credits start their upward crawl.

The overwhelming majority of A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die! looks passable. I'd imagine this Blu-ray disc was struck from the same HD master that was making the rounds on Voom the better part of a decade ago and had probably been last transferred years before that. Film grain tends to be somewhat coarse and chunky, and the vibrancy of its colors can vary significantly from shot to shot. Clarity and fine detail aren't an outright disappointment but are thoroughly underwhelming just the same. Generally looking more like DVD-and-a-half rather than a proper Blu-ray release, this presentation of A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die! clings to the lower rungs of what I'd call 'respectable'. It's a far cry from the surreally gorgeous likes of Day of Anger or The Big Gundown, but I've seen plenty worse.

With its relatively short runtime and no extras to speak of, A Reason to Live, A Reason to Die! can't muster a reason to pony up for a dual-layer disc. The film arrives on Blu-ray at its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1.

This no-frills release of A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die! is limited to English only, delivering its 16-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack in two-channel mono. It's a perfectly adequate effort, and that's all that can really be hoped for from a Eurowestern. There's no intrusive background noise to get in the way, and though dynamic range is limited and the dialogue and sound effects expectedly show some strain, every bit of it is listenable and intelligible.

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There are no other audio options.

Nothing, unless you count a standard-def trailer for Navajo Joe.

The Final Word
As brilliant as a Spaghetti western take on The Dirty Dozen sounds on paper, A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die! plays more like a third act in search of a movie: slowly, blandly, disinterestedly biding its time until the film's literally explosive climax rolls around. It's difficult to imagine the director behind Day of Anger and My Name Is Nobody attached to something this mediocre, and though Bud Spencer and the always-reliable James Coburn do their damndest, the two of them can only elevate such middling material so far. There's little reason to suffer through A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die!, and even Eurowestern completists may bristle at the lack of the much lengthier Italian cut. Rent It.
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