Friday, March 9, 2012

Day 324 - The Wild Bunch

The Wild Bunch (1969) directed by Sam Peckinpah

"A man's got to have a code."
                           - Omar Little from The Wire

The Wild Bunch may very well be the best western I've ever seen right alongside Unforgiven and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. It is also one of the most violent, ugly and gritty pictures I've ever seen. This is not the romanticized vision of the west, but a cold hard one and probably one closer to how life really was. On top of it all, this film is wonderfully made with great cinematography and a variety of editing techniques. In short, it is a masterpiece.

The Wild Bunch refers to a gang of aging criminals in the twilight of the careers. They live by one code only and that is loyalty to each other and to hell with the rest of them. It may sound honorable and all that until you step back and realize what it really means. The film begins and opens with bloody shootouts with countless dead bodies including lots of innocent bystanders. Members of the Wild Bunch even use women as human shields. No one is safe. One of the most distinguishing features of the film is its sheer violence and the seemingly meaningless of it all. Was this Sam Peckinpah's response to the Vietnam War? Was it his way of saying that the old ways were ending? In the beginning of the movie we see a group of kids taking delight in torturing scorpions by throwing them into a pit of ants. In the end of the film it is a little kid that proudly kills the hero. It goes to show the passing down of violence from generation to generation, from the Wild Bunch, a group of retiring old men, to a group of kids. It is so easy and meaningless for them to kill, again perhaps referencing to the Vietnam War. Even beyond that it is eerily relavent in today's times as well.

The Wild Bunch come rolling into town looking for one final score with a robbery except that it is a set-up. A massive fifteen minute shootout ensues in an intense action sequence that feels very "modern" with its stylized violence and editing. This was one of the first films to use slow motion, something that is overdone to death these days, but even now forty years later, it still looks insanely cool in the film. The combination of mixing speeds and tempo in action sequences heightens all the action and "gives time an elastic quality never before seen in motion pictures up to that time." (thanks Wiki!)

The crew escape, having lost several members along the way. But all is for naught when the loot they steal turns out to be nothing but iron washers. They head on down towards Mexico looking for another job. We begin to slowly learn about the characters. There is the leader Pike Bishop who lives by his code. "When you side with a man, you stay with him, and if you can't do that you're like some animal. You're finished! We're finished! All of us!" There's his right hand man Dutch, brothers Lyle and Tector and Angel. They all have their distinct colorful personalities to make each one memorable. They are pursued by Deke Thornton, Pike's former partner released from prison in exchange for capturing him. Pike's code haunts him as he left Deke behind to be captured and it comes into play later when they let the Mexicans take Angel.

The crew winds up staying in Angel's old hometown where they devise a plan to steal a shipment of guns and ammo to sell to the Mexican Federal Army. Angel wants to keep one crate for himself to give to his town so it can defend itself. When the job is done (in another great set piece involving an exploding bridge), the Mexican general finds out and takes Angel prisoner. The scene is gut wrenching as we see Angel's helpless face and Dutch's cold reaction which haunts the group later. They have broken their own code and must rectify it. This leads to the final set-piece in a shootout that is so bloody and violent that it could give the end of Rambo IV a run for its money. One cannot help but think of the endings of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or Bonnie and Clyde when watching the end of The Wild Bunch.

There are also a lot of great shots and editing techniques used throughout. Some of it actually reminded me of Sergio Leone as it uses bold camera movements that often focus on the faces. One such shot involves an extreme close up of a face that slowly zooms out to an extreme wide shot revealing a man on top of a cliff. Then it slowly zooms in to an extreme close up of another figure on an opposing cliff. I like these kind of weird looking shots. Of course I have already mentioned the action sequences. Everything about this film is great, from the epic storytelling to the memorable characters and the superb direction.

Grade: A

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