FISTFUL OF DOLLARS
and – why the hell not –
LAST MAN STANDING
I’ve been doing alot of themed movie-watching lately and I don’t want that to grow stale, so I decided to mix things up a little. Three movies starring my favorite badasses, but from different years and different countries. Just a real variety of material here. YOJIMBO is about this bad motherfucker who wanders into a small town torn apart by two warring gangs, and he goes back and forth working for them, plays them against each other, rescues a woman from them then gets beaten up real bad but escapes and hides out and then tricks them some more and also I forgot to mention there’s alot of good jokes about the town coffin maker getting business from his activities. FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, on the other hand, is about this bad motherfucker who wa– hey, wait a minute!
Nah, I’m just fucking with you. Actually I thought it would be a good experiment to watch YOJIMBO and its two remakes all in the same day. See what happens. This is kind of a miracle of badass cinema we have right here. Three of the greatest badass icons – Toshiro Mifune, Clint Eastwood and Bruce Willis – all starring in the same story. Plus you got the directors: Akira Kurosawa, Sergio Leone, and Walter Hill ain’t in their league but he’s no slouch either.
You know, I’ve seen YOJIMBO before and I liked it, but it wasn’t until watching it this time that I really realized what was right in front of my nose: this is WITHOUT A DOUBT ONE OF THE MOST BADASS MOVIES OF ALL TIME (or WADOOTMBMOAT). And definitely one of the most badass characters. I mean I always think of Clint Eastwood as the very top of the badass totem pole, but you gotta take into account that the role that started that persona was based on Mifune in this movie. So he’s the grandaddy of it all.
Toshiro plays a badass ronin motherfucker with no name (he introduces himself as Sanjuro something something which means “30-year-old Mulberry Field”) who wanders at random into this small town. And while he’s drinking some water he bummed off an old man he eavesdrops on a conversation about the gang war that’s ruining the town. The old man pointedly says “hungry dogs always come when they smell blood” and Sanjuro gives this look like “ouch!” But a little later he sees an actual dog with a severed human hand in his mouth and I wonder if it occurs to Sanjuro that that maybe the guy actually wasn’t insulting him, his eyes just wandered while he was speaking literally about the local dog problem.
As soon as he walks into town a goofy dude sees he’s a ronin, runs up and starts giving him advice about which side to choose in the gang war, tells him where to go to sign up and make lots of money. “I’d show you myself but I’m the law around here!”
How badass is Sanjuro? Well, we don’t have all day so I’ll just scratch the surface. He has pretty much every great badass quality: superb fighting skills (sword), dry sense of humor even when threatened with death, full of clever tricks to play on the enemy, casual in the face of danger to the point of ridiculousness, keeps on going even after beaten so bad he can’t walk. And this is all made even more badass by the fact that he’s not really a hero, not even a reluctant one. There’s no good reason why he has to fight these guys. He’s cleaning the town of gangsters but not out of any sense of duty – he thinks he can get some money out of it and he seems to think it would be amusing to kill these guys. And he’s not even in town for any particular reason – he threw a stick in the air to choose his path and it pointed down this road. So what the hell, when in Rome…
After demonstrating his skills by killing three men on one side Sanjuro joins up with the other side. They’re worried he might take the money and leave at night so they schedule their big gang war for that afternoon. He even overhears them talking about their plans to kill him and keep the money, and he seems to think it’s funny. As soon as both sides arrive at the appointed battleground he says he quits, climbs up the watchtower and sits with a big stupid grin as they all face off with their swords and giant hammers and shit, too embarrassed to back down.
As he plays more games with the gangs he doesn’t really tell people what he’s doing, he keeps most of it to himself and you just have to watch the plan unfold. After he saves some people and gets a thank you letter he almost seems embarrassed or disgusted by it – in fact he leaves it laying unread on the table and that’s what gets him caught and beat up by a giant. He just doesn’t give a fuck.
There are different translations so it’s hard to know exactly what the original lines were, but in this Criterion version it’s got some of the all time great badass lines. Alot of them to the coffin maker. One of my favorite parts is when he tells a dude to go get help because six men are dead. Then he busts into the place and kills six guys. That’s how confident he is, he starts the rumor before he even does it. It gets even better though – he wrecks the place and when the backup gets there he says it “must’ve taken 15 or 16 men.” So by his own estimation one Sanjuro is equal to roughly 15.5 regular men.
The end is another classic moment in Badass Cinema history. He’s wiped out both gangs so he tells the old man he was staying with that the town will be a little quieter now. Then he tells the corrupt lawman to hang himself. Suddenly he lifts his sword and the old man thinks he’s gonna kill him – but he swings the sword and merely cuts the ropes from the man’s wrists. Then he struts away and says “See ya around.” The end.
There are different translations of it but I think “See ya around” is the best. I mean it’s so casual and at the same time kind of threatening – yes, this guy who killed everybody else in town, you may run into him again.
Even if Mifune didn’t have these great lines and badass activities he might still have turned this into a badass icon because his performance is topnotch. He looks so physically imposing (except when standing next to the giant). Just the way he moves is interesting to watch. He has this weird way he moves his shoulders up and down sometimes – I took it to be a stretch because it reminded me of Ichiro Suzuki on the Mariners. But I learned from a documentary on the DVD that Sanjuro does that because he has fleas! You hear that Mickey Rourke? I know you pride yourself in being grimy but do you have fleas? Sanjuro does. How are you gonna top that?
The way he moves his shoulders, the way he scowls, the way his eyes look at everybody else like they’re no concern to him. And the way he’s often scratching his chin or the back of his neck makes him look relaxed, like Dirty Harry holding that hot dog while foiling a bank robbery. Even a corrupt town torn apart by greed, filled with young psychopaths and giants with hammers, where stray dogs walk through the streets snacking on human limbs – even there this guy is not intimidated. And the very fact that people think they pose a threat to him would make him smile… if he was the kind of guy who smiled.
A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS is one of the all time greats too, and it’s gotta be one of if not the most influential remake of all time. The only way you can ever make it look bad in any way is to do what I just did and watch it immediately after YOJIMBO.
The basic story stays pretty close to YOJIMBO, with guns instead of swords. (Note: the guy in YOJIMBO who has a gun, that guy does not have a sword in FISTFUL, he still has a gun). But even when the scenes are directly based on YOJIMBO there are always little variations that make it interesting. If I had an Oprah’s Book Club type deal for discussing the films of Badass Cinema I would ask the question “Which coffin joke is more badass?” In YOJIMBO he tells the coffin maker to prepare 2 coffins, then changes his mind: “No, better make that 3.” This is because he killed two guys and cut another guy’s arm off, and he thinks about it and I guess he decides the third guy is gonna bleed to death. But in FISTFUL he tells the guy to prepare 3 coffins before he kills anyone. After he ends up killing 4 guys he says, “My mistake. Four.”
That’s pretty fuckin badass in a different way, that he is trying to be polite about it, like it’s a normal transaction. Like “How would you like your cash back? Is a twenty okay?” “Sure.” And then, “You know what, actually I have to do laundry, could I get a roll of quarters in there?” It’s as casual as that. Plus the fact that he ordered the coffins before killing the people to go in them. That kind of thinking ahead gets you badass points. So I can definitely see an argument for either version being more badass.
Another good twist is in the scene where he first picks a fight with a group of thugs in order to get involved in the clan war – he tries to make them apologize to his mule. Then when they laugh he says that his mule doesn’t like to be laughed at. You could almost argue that this is my Theory of Badass Juxtaposition in action, that he is very sensitive about the feelings of animals. But I think he’s just fucking with them. Otherwise there would be a scene later on where he fixes the wing of an injured hawk or nurses a sick baby goat back to health or something like that.
Another good addition is the graverobbing. The Man With No Name may not have fleas like Sanjuro, but since he plays with dead bodies and you don’t see him wash his hands I think it’s fair to say he has his own hygeine issues. He takes two dead soldiers out of their coffins, sets them up against a graveyard, tells one side that two soldiers are camping out there and gets the other side to watch when they come shoot them. WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S would’ve been child’s play for the Man With No Name. He’s a master at this shit.
(by the way, how do we really know that that body in the opening of TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE wasn’t part of a similar playing-one-gang-against-the-other scheme? Think about it.)
From what I understand, YOJIMBO was revolutionary in Japanese cinema at the time, the music was really unusual, some of the camerawork was groundbreaking and the violence and the portrayal of a scruffy samurai were shocking. Supposedly it was the first movie to use the sound of a sword going through flesh, for example. A great cinema landmark. FISTFUL does the same thing to the style of westerns and the image of the western hero. But this one is more noticably stylish and hip. It’s got the animated opening credits like a James Bond movie, the catchy Ennio Morricone music, the shots of the bad guys’ ugly mugs with one guy in closeup in the foreground so you can stare at all the interesting lines on his face. All this stuff got more extreme in Leone’s later movies, as his movies also got longer, his settings got more epic and the stories got more operatic and emotional. But I could see how some people could like this one even better, to see all that in its earlier, tighter form.
p.s. Good poncho
LAST MAN STANDING on paper sounds like some kind of badass supermovie. I mean you got the story of YOJIMBO, the star of DIE HARD, plus you got the KING OF NEW YORK in there, from the writer of THE GETAWAY, the director of THE WARRIORS, and with the bottomless gun clips of HARD BOILED. That oughta add up to a giant foot bigger than the ass it’s gonna kick, but I don’t know. It’s a little hit and alot of miss. It may be a giant foot but it has poor aim and only brushes the side of the ass rather than punting it.
It’s not a total loss. Bruce, obviously, is cool. The cinematographicry is spectacular. There’s a couple scenes where it’s pouring down rain but most of it is in the dustiest small Texas town you ever saw, the whole thing tinted a pale orange like there’s even a layer of dust over the screen. Alot of times the camera’s pointing through a window covered in dirt or steam or bullet holes, and sometimes when it’s not it still looks like it is.
But I think maybe where the movie goes wrong is in the very premise of turning the YOJIMBO story into a hard boiled/film noir type of story, because it changes the tone too much. I mean he drives into town in a car, there’s an Italian gang and an Irish gang in from Chicago, they got tommy guns and fedoras and they talk about Prohibition, that stuff is all fine. But the voiceover narration? That kind of blows it. Both Mifune and Clint’s characters are great because they’re stoic, they have this big plan but they keep most of it to themselves and you watch them play all their cards one at a time with confidence. When they get beat to a pulp halfway through you wonder if this is gonna foul things up, but you kind of get the sense that it’s not gonna stop them. And it doesn’t.
Bruce’s “John Smith” plays it quiet alot of the time too (although he does have more dialogue than the other two), but then he explains everything he’s thinking and planning in this narration. It fits the genre they’re going for but it undermines the story.
Worse, to fit the noir conventions he has to be pessimistic, always talking about how fucked he is, how he’s doomed but he has to take his lumps, “you have to play the cards you have,” etc. So you completely lose the attitude that made the original story so enjoyable. Sanjuro and Man With No Name come in and outsmart everybody and strut out suppressing a smile, Bruce goes in and gets his ass kicked and he’s lucky to get out alive. And the whole tone is more gloomy. Ry Cooder’s score has a good upbeat theme at the beginning and end, but it’s mostly just low notes to make everything seem grim. And instead of being shocked and in disbelief about getting their asses kicked, the bad guys just get pissed off. It’s not as fun.
Luckily, there are some pretty good scenes of badass ridiculousness. In one scene, Bruce is having sex with Judd Appatow’s wife when some guys come in with guns. And he hops out of bed holding two handguns, as if maybe he had them in his hands while screwin. And he blows the guys away while buck naked. Obviously this is an attempt to one up DIE HARD, where he had no shoes on, now he has no nothin on. He even has less hair than in DIE HARD. But he has the Chow Yun Fat Signature Series .45s so he sends these guys flying five to ten feet in the air when he shoots them. Later he gets attacked while naked again, when he’s in the bath tub, but he can’t quite reach his guns this time. That seemed like a pretty stupid mistake not to have his guns underwater in the tub with him. Fuckin amateur.
This one is specifically based on YOJIMBO, and credited as a remake. But when he gets beat up it’s his right eye that is swollen, which I’m pretty sure is the same eye as in FISTFUL OF DOLLARS. In YOJIMBO it’s his left eye though. Caught ya, Walter Hill. You and your damn westerns.
Anyway, I’m sorry to report that LAST MAN STANDING is most important as proof that the films of Badass Cinema are more than just a list of ingredients. You can have Bruce, Walter Hill, Walken and Yojimbo, you can still fuck it up. Oh well, we still got those other two.
AUDIENCE AWARD: YOJIMBO
SPECIAL JURY PRIZE FOR ACHIEVEMENT IN REMAKE: A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.