It’s easy for me to forget that there are really no rules for this gig, at least none I’ve been told about. My impulse is usually to find something current or at least recent because my self-esteem is directly linked to my hit counter and reviewing movies people might have actually heard of recently is the best way to keep the numbers high, to keep me from spending an evening chugging Haagen-Dasz. Although I do that anyway, most nights.
But really, that drive to stay current is self-imposed, and I’m free to review anything I please. And given that the most interesting thing to float past my view this week was a C-Western randomly found by a co-worker, now seems as good a time as any to go retro. Hell, if the Forget the Box leadership won’t blink an eye when I review Japanese superhero flicks, I doubt they’ll blink one at this.
Take a Hard Ride is one of those movies I knew I had to watch immediately upon learning of its existence, the same kind of undeniable impulse that leads me to make nachos at three in the morning or watch all three Daimajin movies. I mean just look at it: a Western starring Jim Brown, Fred “The Hammer” Williamson and Jim Kelly, three of the go-to African-American actors for 1970s genre trash. I’m fucking THERE, man. And it’s directed by Antonio Margheriti, the same Antonio Margheriti who gave us the gift of Yor: The Hunter From the Future, one of the most mind-boggling bad yet unbelievably fun movies to ever star Reb Brown in a loincloth. Upon inserting the disc, expecting to uncover another bottom-barrel piece of popcorn fodder, I found myself surprised at how little the movie actually sucks. Ok, don’t get me wrong, it’s hardly fantastic, but as far as bargain basement Westerns go, you could actually do worse.
Brown stars as Pike, a trail hand trying to ferry his dead boss’s money to a ranch in Mexico, who unsurprisingly, finds himself set upon by everyone looking to make a bit of legally ambiguous cash and given that this is a Western, that means pretty much everyone. Pike strikes up an uneasy alliance with Williamson’s Tyree, a smooth talking gambler whose solution to most problems is to throw snakes at them, because if there’s one thing we can learn from The Battle Wizard it’s that throwing snakes is totally a viable strategy in combat. Along the way to Mexico, Pike and Tyree pick up Kelly’s Kashtock, who is either supposed to be a black guy raised by Native Americans or a black guy playing an Native American. The film is strangely vague about whether or not this is a really weird case of “red face” casting or not, but either way, he’s played by Jim Kelly which means a lot of people tend to get kicked in the head when he’s around, which tends to distract from possible racial insensitivity. Pursuing the trio is an ever-widening array of baddies, most notably Lee Van Goddamn Cleef as a menacing bounty hunter.
What I really like about this film, beyond the contagious amounts of fun the entire cast seem to be having with the whole thing, is how it never seems to skimp on things like character. Even the most ancillary characters seem to have something going on, be it implied or outright stated. Almost everyone feels like they just stepped in out of their own story, and there are surprisingly few hollow characters who are just there to move the plot along. It gives you the sense you’re watching a movie set in an actual universe, with stories and histories for virtually everyone, instead of just a funhouse ride populated by cardboard cutouts and meth-dealing, gap-toothed carnies.
Of course the flip side to this is that the film seems to have too big a cast at some points. Characters will appear out of nowhere and get killed off before we get much time with them and the only villain to really make it from the beginning to the end of the flick is Van Cleef’s Kiefer, who ironically enough remains much of a mystery. Although, I suppose that was written into his contract right under “the party will squint like he just smelled a fart for the entirety of the film”.
There’s also a surprising bit of class lent to the movie by a score composed by Jerry Goldsmith. This is a bit of a double-edged sword and I found myself missing the cheesy, awkward scores of movies like Mannaja. Take a Hard Ride’s score sounds like there was an actual full orchestra involved, and lends action scenes a lot of fun and energy. Not saying that’s a bad thing, but it caught me off guard, and part of me wishes there was at least one Italian singer phoenetically pronouncing his way through some utterly nonsensical lyrics.
With all this in mind, the film is still completely and utterly ridiculous, something you’ll probably figure out well before Brown and Williamson jump a hundred foot wide canyon in a horse drawn carriage in an utter “fuck you” to the laws of reason and physics. There’s no point in this movie where you’ll forget that you’re watching a really dumb, silly, low-grade Western. But similarly there are very few points where you can literally feel the movie making you dumber, the impossible canyon jump being one of the few examples to the contrary. It falls into that same category as Sabata, the kind of movie you’d watch every weekend if you were 10 years old and really into Westerns, when you just wanted something fun and exciting with the occasional curse word. It may not “Ride with the Great Westerns”, as the box proclaims, but it manages to hit that sweet spot between the fun and silliness of a good Spaghetti Western and the slightly more upscale class of an American one.