Sunday, December 2, 2012
Sunday Review: Death Rage (1976)
It’s Yul Brynner’s world; we’re all just living in it…
Nothing beats the Italian exploitation films of the 1960’s and 70’s. From legitimately great directors like Mario Bava and Sergio Leone to great hacks like Lucio Fulci and Antonio Margheriti, the Italian B-movie industry had the wonderful habit of latching on to popular movies of the day and milking them dry. Look through the Italian exploitation films of that period and you have a venerable treasure trove of fantastic sleaze (and some not-so-fantastic sleaze): WWII men-on-a-mission movies, spaghetti westerns, sword-and-sandal flicks, giallos, Eurospy movies, and several crime movies ripping off everything from The Godfather to Dirty Harry. The 1976 Yul Brynner vehicle Death Rage was clearly made to capitalize off the success of Death Wish (so much so that the poster all but labels it a sequel to the Bronson movie), but although it has similarly sensational violence, Death Rage feels much closer to Get Carter, both in story and overall tone.
Make no mistake: this is the Yul Brynner show. There are other actors in the movie, and some of them are even quite good, but like most of the shaven-head Russian actor’s filmography, nearly everyone he shares the screen with pales in comparison. The character of Peter Marciani isn’t anything special on his own - an aging assassin coaxed out of retirement for one last job (that also conveniently ties into avenging his brother’s death) - but as played by Brynner (in his second-to-last film performance) becomes something extraordinary. It’s all in the little touches: the way Brynner carries himself, his precise mannerisms, that fucking awesome black blazer; you absolutely believe that this is a man who has spent his entire life killing other men for money. For an actor well into his 50’s, that’s quite something.
And although they’re outshined by Brynner, the rest of the cast is also mostly excellent. Massimo Ranieri plays a fresh-faced wannabe crook named Angelo, who Brynner takes under his wing Unforgiven-style and tries to talk him out of the “life.” Angelo is a role that could very easily be grating, but Ranieri is earnest enough to keep his character sympathetic. Martin Balsam is also pretty fantastic as the Italian police commissioner who walks a fine line between being Brynner’s friend and enemy. Rounding out the main players is Barbara Bouchet as Annie, who’s really in the movie because all these Italian movies need some sexy leading lady or another to put on the poster in a bikini. The actress does fine with what she’s given, but her role and relationship with Brynner’s character feel a little tacked-on and forced (although it’s not hard to see why they both fall for each other almost immediately).
Many of these old exploitation movies live and die by the direction, which here is adequately provided by the aforementioned Antonio Margheriti. A critic less informed with Italian B-movies would probably refer to Margheriti as a “hack” and intend it as a negative. But although he wasn’t exactly Fellini, Margheriti infused just enough of his own style and panache to differentiate himself through the various genres all Italian B-movie directors found themselves wading in. Here he stages all manner of fantastic chases and shootouts on a budget, including the striking finale taking place underneath a sky lit up by fireworks. Although I’m also partial to his spaghetti And God Said to Cain, it’s not hard to paint Death Rage as Margheriti’s very best film.
With a thoroughly badass Yul Brynner and solid work from all involved, Death Rage is an Italo-crime movie well worth your time.