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"Start praying if you like, I don't mind. It's a smart thing to do, when you know that death is coming for you."—Major Jackson
One of the most notorious films of the spaghetti western genre hits Blu-ray courtesy of the cult-wizards at Blue Underground. Is Django quick enough on the draw? Or is this one disc that should be tossed into a pine box and buried.
Facts of the Case
Django (Franco Nero, Die Hard 2: Die Harder) shambles into a dead town near the Mexican boarder, dragging a pine coffin behind him. Caught between a rebel Confederate's red hood wearing militia and a Mexican general looking to raise an army, Django attempts to settle old scores. Who is this mysterious wanderer? Why has he returned to such a desolate place? What business does he have with Major Jackson, the Confederate rebel? What is he carrying in that heavy looking coffin?
One could possibly be forgiven for creating a western from the DNA of Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo, the samurai actioner which itself was spawned from the westerns of American luminaries like John Ford. Sergio Leone did it, and hit huge with the low budget A Fistful of Dollars. If I didn't know any better, I'd say Italian filmmakers have issues with originality. Django, like 30 other Spaghetti Western contemporaries, pretty much recycles the same plot yet again. The titular Django is the stoic loner with foggy motives and a foggier code of conduct. He wanders into town and plays both sides against the middle, in a twisting narrative that sees him turn from upstanding do-gooder, to renegade, and back again. Although Django has a secret weapon; something he stores in the pine coffin-box he drags around behind him.
Yes, it's the Lone Wolf persona, and a plot equally familiar, but Django does as much to separate itself from the other hangers-on as it does to fit in. Everything hinges on three things: 1) the awesome performance of Franco Nero, probably best remembered as a deposed Colombian general and drug kingpin in Die Hard 2; 2) the assured direction of Sergio Corbucci, friend to Sergio Leone and director of the criminally neglected The Great Silence; and 3) the single most ridiculous machine gun I have ever seen.
Nero is all charisma from the first scene; his tattered Union blues, wide brimmed hat, and piercing eyes create as unique a figure as any other western anti-hero. As if that weren't enough, the coffin-dragging gimmick certainly goes a long way to further distinguishing him from other protagonists. Forget the fact his signature weapon—the belt-fed machine gun he totes so effortlessly—couldn't possibly exist this close to the end of the Civil War, has no recoil, can be hand fired, and possesses the characteristics of a Gatling gun, a Mitrailleuse, and a Maxim Machinegun all in one. It also never, ever runs out of ammo. Ever.
The supporting cast does an ample enough job, but to say they were anything more than adequate would be a lie; save perhaps for the gorgeous Loredana Nusciak, who plays the escaped whore turned love interest, Maria. The villains are suitably villainous, the townsfolk suitably homely, and the ladies of the local brothel suitably sassy.
Sergio Corbucci is probably best known for this film, and justly so. The antithesis to Leone—who loved to linger just a little bit longer than expected, often slowing the pace to a crawl—Corbucci shows a knack for control of his camera and an energy his peers lack. Django is whip fast, moving from scene to scene with little space for a breather.
The look of the film also falls outside of the norm. Rather than dusty trails, blue skies, and arid wastes, the west in Django is a mud strewn, wet, desolate, overcast Hell on earth. Characters aren't just covered in trail dust and grime, they're caked and matted in mud. The desolation makes for a muted palette of colors that contrasts sharply with the richer colored costumes, and of course, blood.
Blue Underground does a fantastic job upgrading their previous DVD release. The print is an old one, from an era and a culture that didn't take the same steps in protecting and preserving film that we do in this day and age. Specks of dirt and dust are frequent, and many scenes feature print fading and damage that couldn't be repaired without massive work and a couple of hundred fistfuls of dollars, and even a few dollars more on top of that (ouch…sorry). That said, the 1080p AVC high def transfer is free of any authoring errors outside of some scattered edge halos. There's not a hint of noise reduction, aliasing, or artifacts to be found. The image is clear and clean, with fine detail that's fantastic to look at, natural grain, and colors that pop off of the screen. I doubt Django has ever looked this good.
The sound is entirely a single channel affair. You have a choice between English and Italian DTS-HD; both sound fantastic for what they are, with a presence and clarity that defies the single speaker the sound is booming from. Whether your choice is the authentic dubbed experience of the classic spaghetti westerns you watched on cable with your dad Sunday afternoons (which is horrible, of course), or the original Italian language, which is poorly looped over a film that was shot silently, you'll be satisfied. The signature title song comes through loud and clear, and the rest of the score sounds great without being distorted or too heavy on the treble. It's one of the best mono tracks I've heard.
There's a great slate of extras included, all of which are ported over from the earlier DVD release and presented in standard definition. Included is the 10-minute short film, The Last Pistolero, a black and white homage to Nero's western roles, originally filmed in 2003. The documentary, "Django: The One and Only" takes us behind the production, and gives us some background on the film, including the over 50 unofficial sequels that followed. There's a vintage documentary from 1968, "Western, Italian style," which includes interviews with a few of the notable filmmakers of the era, including Sergio Corbucci, which details the Spaghetti Western phenomenon. It's an interesting watch, and a solid genre introduction for the uninitiated. Finally, we get trailers, and an optional introduction to the film by Franco Nero.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Exposure to the spaghetti western typically starts with the work of Sergio Leone, and more specifically, either his "Man With No Name" trilogy, or at the very least, the third entry in the Eastwood-Leone trilogy. Leone's films are legendary for a reason; after something like The Good, The Bad and The Ugly or Once Upon a Time in the West, you've experienced the very best the genre has to offer. Django has a reputation of being particularly unique and overtly violent, but it's a bit of a smokescreen. Outside of the notorious ear-cutting sequence that Tarantino cribbed for Reservoir Dogs, it's not too varied from the rest of the westerns that defined the genre after A Fistful of Dollars hit huge. There's not much here that warrants praise beyond saying it's a great spaghetti western. Sure, Django shares many similarities with A Fistful of Dollars, and leading man Franco Nero is definitely doing his very best Clint Eastwood impersonation, but none of this is really to the detriment of the feature. Going in expecting anything revolutionary or redefining based on the film's cult status or its reputation is definitely setting oneself up for disappointment. On the other hand, if you're well versed in the spaghetti western genre, and if you just want a good Italian oater, Django is a damn good one!
Django may fall short of the Leone legacy, but "the other" Sergio's best known work is a tight, distinct looking effort with an excellent leading man. There's enough lead chucked at hooligans and desperadoes to satiate that spaghetti craving. Blue Underground has done a bang-up job with the Blu-ray and it's a must own for any fan of the genre. Now if only we could get The Great Silence to sit alongside it.
Not guilty! And I've got a pine box for anyone who says otherwise!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Blue Underground
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