Friday, December 09, 2016

The Five Man Army

If you’ve ever wondered what MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE would look like as an Italian western, here you go. The casting of Peter Graves as The Dutchman, the leader of an elite team of specialists who plans an elaborate, split-second scheme to rob a train, couldn’t have been coincidental. Graves even imitates a Mexican accent at one point. Not well, but he did accents badly on MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE too.

An Italian production directed in Spain by American Don Taylor (ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES), THE FIVE MAN ARMY was penned by the unlikely screenwriting team of Marc Richards, whose career rested mainly in schlocky Saturday morning kids’ programs, and Dario Argento, the ‘70s maestro of horror who directed classics like TENEBRAE, BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, and DEEP RED. It’s a fun, weird mixture of spaghetti western and caper flick with a sturdy international cast.

During the Mexican Revolution, The Dutchman recruits explosives expert Augustus (James Daly, then starring on MEDICAL CENTER), burly Animal (Bud Spencer), master swordsman Samurai (Tetsuro Tamba) and cocky young Luis (Nino Castelnuovo) to steal $500,000 in gold from a moving train guarded by Army soldiers and monitored at regular intervals along the track. Taylor touches all the tropes of the caper genre, the most fun being that no matter how well the plan is conceived, something is bound to go wrong, forcing the operatives to think on their feet.

Even with legendary composer Ennio Morricone (THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY) contributing a subpar (for him) score, THE FIVE MAN ARMY is good solid “men on a mission” filmmaking. Even so, the film drags in parts, despite some welcome humor, and could have used another polish in the editing room. What works perfectly, however, is the train sequence that comprises the third act. A masterpiece of editing and suspense, it’s likely the highlight of Taylor’s career behind the camera.

Credit to the actors for finding their characters with little help from the screenplay. Tamba (YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE) manages to win over the audience without dialogue, preferring to let his skull-splitting sword do his talking for him. Spencer (TRINITY IS MY NAME) uses his real voice for a change, and the dependable Daly wrings pathos out of his part with a twinkle in his eye that says a thousand words. Despite the movie’s dollops of nudity and gore, MGM released THE FIVE MAN ARMY on a 1970 double bill with the G-rated CAPTAIN NEMO AND THE UNDERWATER CITY.

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