Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Stranger And The Gunfighter (1974)

The thief and expert safe-cracker Dakota (Lee Van Cleef) is trying to steal the fabled riches of the Chinese-immigrant businessman Wang. To his disappointment, Wang's safe only contains four pictures of the backs of Wang's four mistresses. Worse still, the pictures' owner stumbles onto the burglary and falls down dead (I suspect four mistresses weren't such a good idea for a man of his age). Poor, semi-innocent Dakota ends up sentenced to death for murder.

A little later somewhere in China, a warlord presses Wang's nephew, the martial arts expert Ho Chiang (Lo Lieh), into his service to travel to America and get him his uncle's money. The fabled riches weren't actually Wang's own, but belonged to the warlord who used Wang as intermediate to invest money in the US. Now, the rather rude man has gotten impatient and gives Ho Chiang exactly one year to return with his money, or the fighters' father and sister will die.

Once arrived in America, Ho Chiang soon realizes that Dakota didn't steal his uncle's money. It also becomes clear that uncle Wang was quite the fetishist and had the whereabouts of his treasures tattooed onto his mistresses backsides.

Since Ho is a nice guy and thinks himself in need of a traveling companion who knows the lay of the land, he frees Dakota from the gallows and offers him a little money for his help. Dakota agrees to the proposal, very un-Spaghetti-like without showing any sign of ulterior motives.

Together, the two men travel the land to stare at female asses everywhere. It's just too bad that they aren't all that good at secrecy, so they soon have to compete against an insane preacher only known as The Deacon (driving a mean mobile church) to get at the behinds.

As the film's fascination with female backsides (not that it is actually showing any of them) should demonstrate, The Stranger And The Gunfighter is not to be taken seriously. It's a film built - in the glorious Italian tradition -  to cash in on the short popularity of Lo Lieh in American grindhouses as a martial arts hero (which of course blissfully ignored the fact that he more often than not played the bad guy in his Hong Kong films) and the absolute willingness Lee Van Cleef's to do any damn thing for a movie (see also Captain Apache), and it succeeds admirably as a silly piece of fluff.

Many among the surprising number of Spaghetti Western/martial arts crossover films aren't too entertaining to watch, but most of these films weren't directed by house favorite Antonio Margheriti, who always had a sure hand when it came to directing silly adventure movies. And at heart, The Stranger And The Gunfighter is a deeply silly adventure movie outfitted with the trappings of a Spaghetti Western and a little Kung Fu more than it belongs to those other two genres.

Watching the film, I found it hard to shake the feeling that everyone involved had a hell of a time - Van Cleef shooting, singing (alas) and drinking and Lo Lieh staring at female bottoms with scientific earnestness and a looking glass and kicking male asses when necessary. I imagine Margheriti giggling with glee behind his camera, as I often do when watching the man's films.

All this is obviously far from that mysterious thing experts call "good taste", but I stopped caring about that a long time ago when I decided that I'm not that bourgeois. While the bottom business and the not completely enlightened interpretation of Chinese culture (which isn't as bad as in other films I've seen, mind you) might offend some people, that will mostly be a problem for those looking to be offended.

For my tastes, the film is much too good-natured and light to deserve anything but laughter, and much too fast-paced and silly not to be entertaining.


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