Italy / 1977
Directed by
Sergio Martino
Maurizio Merli
John Steiner
Donal O'Brien
Color / 96 Minutes / Not Rated
Format: DVD (R0 - NTSC)
Blue Underground
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Review by
Brian Lindsey
    8   10 = Highest Rating  
SNEAK PREVIEW | DVD Release Date: Jan. 7, 2003
For one dreadful moment, as the opening credits to this film began, I had a Keoma flashback. The dirge-like music... a growling, exaggerated baritone warbling lyrics that could've been written by a 5th grader... My eyes rolled at the prospect of yet another intriguing spaghetti western mortally wounded by a gratingly bad score. I cringed when I saw that the same composers responsible for the crime against humanity that is the Keoma soundtrack also wrote this one. Though braced for the worst, I can happily report that the music in Sergio Martino's Mannaja is nowhere near as terrible. While bad enough, the main theme song is used much more sparingly here than in Keoma; it's not so relentlessly omnipresent as to set one's blood pressure soaring. If the songs in Keoma (ironically, the better film) are the equivalent of King Kong raking his nails across the world's biggest chalkboard, then in comparison Mannaja's ballad is a rather small stone lodged inside one's shoe — not really that irritating as long as you don't walk around on it. As for the movie...
    Maurizio Merli is the 'Whitest Teeth in the West'
— a roughhewn, macho bounty hunter with a first-rate dental plan. He's called Blade for his deadly, uncanny skill with an Indian throwing axe. ("Mannaja" is "hatchet" or "axe" in Italian). His proficiency with the weapon is demonstrated in the atmospheric pre-titles sequence, which sees Blade pursuing a wanted criminal through a fog-shrouded swamp. The moment outlaw Burt Craven (Zombie Holocaust's Donal O'Brien) pauses to catch his breath, leaning against a tree, a silhouetted figure looms out of the mist in Peckinpah-style slo-mo, hurling a tomahawk. It somersaults through the air to its target, slicing off Craven's right hand before burying itself in the tree trunk. (Craven must have a great dental plan, too, given the fillings he displays when howling in agony.)
    Blade hauls his prisoner to the nearest settlement, the dilapidated mining town of Suttonville, to collect the reward money. But there's no sheriff to turn Craven over to. The town is run with an iron fist by McGowan (Phillipe Leroy), the wheelchair-bound owner of the silver mine, and his ruthless lieutenant Voller (Tenebre's John Steiner). Blade almost immediately puts himself at the top of Voller's Shit List when he beats him in a high card draw for a cool $5,000. (This is a great scene. When challenged by Voller to go Double or Nothing for the sum, Blade pauses briefly while scooping up the money, slowly looks up from beneath his hat brim and tersely replies, "No." Merli is very 'Eastwoodian' in his coolness here.) The confrontation escalates as Blade becomes involved in the town's affairs, challenging McGowan's harsh treatment of his workers and fanatically puritanical edicts against vice. (The saloon has long been boarded up; a troupe of traveling dancing girls is publicly flogged after arriving in the town.) Soon Voller and his gang of ruffians are gunning for the hatchet-wielding stranger. Not-so-subtle hints to leave are ignored. They don't realize that Blade isn't just passing through — he has a private vendetta to settle with McGowan. But some of the players in this unfolding drama may not be all they appear to be. Blade's path to revenge is destined to take a few unexpected detours.
Mannaja was one of the last spaghetti westerns ever made, coming very late in the cycle. It certainly can't touch the best of the genre but by no means does it belong in the cellar with the turkeys. The film is well paced and there are enough gunfights and fisticuffs to please action fans. Absolutely no new ground is broken here but director Sergio Martino (All the Colors of the Dark, Slave of the Cannibal God) arranges things with plenty of style and atmosphere. Replete with all the expected clichιs, its hero — aside from being handy with a hatchet — is pretty much a generic amalgam of Eastwood's Man With No Name, Franco Nero's Django and the plethora of similarly enigmatic gunslingers that followed. Merli, who died of a heart attack in 1989, was an unfamiliar face to me — I haven't seen any of the police thrillers he's known for. (He was an Italian Dirty Harry of sorts in a series of popular European films.) Acting really isn't a prime requisite for this kind of role but Merli shoulders it well; he's a Lee Majors-Tom Selleck hybrid with a dash of John Philip Law. He's well matched by the gaunt, sinister-looking Steiner as Voller, who cuts an offbeat figure with his long black Dracula cape, vicious pet dogs and weird half-Southern, half-German accent (at least in the dubbed English version).
    Aside from a few missteps — the dumb song, a seemingly rushed ending — Mannaja will please spaghetti western fans who don't mind treading over very familiar ground as long as it's done well. In that regard, the film delivers.

Blue Underground comes through yet again with another fine DVD edition of an obscure European film. The widescreen, 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer looks gorgeous, with strong color balance and nary a blemish in evidence. The mono audio tracks — viewers have a choice of either English or Italian, with easy-to-read subtitles for the latter — are crisp and distortion free.
    Extras include the theatrical trailer (also in excellent shape), an image gallery of production stills and promotional art, talent bios of Sergio Martino and Maurizio Merli, and liner notes by Westerns All'Italiana scribe Tom Betts. The most substantial of the bonus features is the documentary featurette A Man Called Sergio. In a recently conducted video interview, director Martino focuses on Mannaja's production, its main players, the music (he actually likes the song), and his sources of inspiration when working in the western milieu. (Sam Peckinpah, to no one's surprise.)
    Mannaja is slated for release this coming January, available as part of Blue Underground's Spaghetti Western Collection 4-disc box set (which also contains Django, Kill!, Run, Man, Run, and the original Django starring Franco Nero). The Mannaja DVD will be sold separately as well.