Sergio Corbucci’s The Mercenary, also known in some circles as A Professional Gun, is a complex tale of Mexican revolutionaries, guns-for-hire and clowns. This 1968 spaghetti western, released the same year as Corbucci’s The Great Silence, is an entertaining genre flick that brims with an Ennio Morricone and Bruno Nicolai score and features a sneering performance by Jack Palance.
The Mercenary is also very funny, but it never ventures into self-parody. Corbucci pilots the Luciano Vincenzoni, Sergio Spina and Adriano Bolzoni screenplay through some dense material, but the snappy plot-points and witty dialogue keeps things galloping at a fair clip. The use of humour also helps the film’s Zapata elements carry more impact.
After a scene that informs a flashback, the audience is introduced to Paco (Tony Musante). He’s a Mexican rebel who escapes certain death at the hands of his rich boss and heads off with his band of revolutionaries. Meanwhile, the mercenary Sergei Kowalski (Franco Nero) hires himself out to transfer some silver across the border. A man named Curly (Palance) sticks his nose in.
Kowalski eventually crosses paths with Paco and makes a deal to work for his group for a great deal of money. The revolutionaries tangle with the Mexican army and with Curly, setting the latter on a path of revenge after humiliating him and killing his men. Paco and Sergei forge an uneasy alliance, which is only further complicated by the arrival of the stunning Columba (Giovanna Ralli).
The relationship between Paco and Sergei forms the thrust of The Mercenary. Nero’s character is only interested in money, which sets up several amusing scenes. The first takes place as the Mexican army is closing in and Paco is desperate for help. Sergei charges him two hundred smackers to set up the machine gun, then charges him another two hundred to fire it. Paco has little choice but to pony up.
There is an attempt to throw religion in the mix, with Paco leading a dozen or so apostles in the good fight and Sergei coming along to save the day. But Kowalski’s fixation on cash eliminates any of his moral elements, which in turn suggests that Paco is the real Christ figure in the tale. At one point, Ralli is dressed up as Jesus and placed on a cross before hauling ass with machine guns.
The Mercenary suggests notions of morality that are less than precise, especially given the various motivations of the key characters. Each one holds as a potential martyr for their cause, even as Columba and Paco drift into a complicated relationship. Columba suggests Lady Macbeth at one point, albeit with purer intentions.
Paco isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer and he seems an unlikely if reluctant leader of a revolution, but his desires are true. He tries to treat people fairly and he has a bit of a clueless streak, which makes him the perfect target for Sergei’s moneyed interests. Paco knows that he can’t handle the popular struggle on his own, though, so the Polish mercenary has him in a vulnerable spot.
Nero’s Sergei is the sort of guy who lights matches on other people. In the opening shot of The Mercenary, he lights up using someone’s hat. Later, he uses someone’s teeth. And so on. The world is his proverbial oyster and he states proudly that the only side he’s on is his own.
There is also the villainous Curly, played well by Palance. He’s named such for his impossibly cool mane. He is a vicious man and he has various enemies dispatched in imaginative ways. An early killing is done via pitchfork, where Alejandro Ulloa’s lens lingers on the man sharpening the pitchfork only to float off-screen during the moment of impact. Naturally, the handiwork is shown after the fact.
The Mercenary isn’t the most traditional of westerns. There are cars and there’s an aeroplane and there are grenades. Palance makes great use of the latter in one of the many gunfights, by the way. But the representative touches are here, from the yawning desert vistas to the derisive, moustachioed characters carving their way through the ruthless world one bloody duel at a time.