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'Machine Gun McCain': Incomprehenisible Gangster Flick, Italian Style

Being dark and dour doesn't translate into being delightful. While successful in reinventing other genres, the Italians really blew it with this bland crime saga.

Machine Gun McCain

Director: Giuliano Montaldo
Cast: John Cassavetes, Britt Ekland, Peter Falk, Gabriele Ferzetti, Luigi Pistilli, Margherita Guzzinati
Distributor: Blue Underground
Rated: R
Year: 1969
Release Date: 2010-08-24

In the '40s and '50s, they were champions of neo-realism while dabbling in the occasional epic muscleman movie known as the 'peplum'. In the '60s, they shocked the world with their brazen depictions of sexuality as well as their revisionist mindset toward the Western.

Indeed, from the grandeur of its production designs to the earthiness of its vision, old school Italian cinema remains a careful combination of spectacle and schlock, its masterpieces frequently marred by bad dubbing, dull acting, and a careless, continental flair for the illogical and the insipid. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the rote gangster films coming out of Rome during the heyday of such foreign film appreciation. After all, what does it say about the country that 'created' the mafia that America consistently surpasses it in dense, dramatic artistry?

This is especially true of Machine Gun McCain (new to Blu-ray from Blue Underground). Starring a "will work for funding for my independent film work" John Cassavetes and bringing along a couple of his pals -- Peter Falk, wife Gena Rowlands -- for the ride, we get an almost incomprehensible combination of heist film, revenge flick, mob chronicle, and whatever else director Giuliano Montaldo (The Reckless, Grand Slam) can come up with along the way. Using Las Vegas as a gaudy backdrop, la Costa Nostra noddlings as the motive for all the ammunition, and a stream of consciousness script that uses English as a tertiary literary ideal, we arrive at something compelling and yet completely nuts, a thriller without suspense and a character study without a lick of common sense. In fact, you could almost watch this way out potboiler with the sound turned off and get just as much out of it.

Our title thug is a recently released convict who served 12 years for armed robbery. Picked up from prison by his 20-year-old son, Hank McCain soon learns that Junior is in league with local hoods and wants his dad to help him with a big Sin City casino heist. Seems that the younger McCain is working with the West Coast mob boss Charlie Adamo (Falk) who wants a piece of the Royal Hotel for his very own. The break-in is a ass-backwards way of getting the meddling manager Abe Stilberman to fork over a percentage of the place. When it turns out that Adamo's higher ups actually run the resort, he wants to call the whole thing off. But McCain has a vendetta against those he sees as using his kid, and decides to drag new gal pal Irene (Britt Ekland) along for the cops and robbery retort. When things go slightly astray, our angry anti-hero breaks out his signature Tommy Gun, and goes to work.

With its typical mixed international cast, inconsistent voice work, massive gaps in logic, and surprising lack of action, there is really only one single reason to watch Machine Gun McCain -- and frankly, it's not always a very persuasive or compelling one. For those who only association Cassavetes with his work behind the camera, who know him as the creative calling card for every independent filmmaker in the last 20 years, watching him command the screen in front of the lens will be eye opening. This is the actor that wowed audience in The Dirty Dozen and Rosemary's Baby, the balanced combination of vulnerability and lightning hot TNT tendencies. Acting was never Cassavetes main passion -- he did it merely as a means of making money to support his far more important outsider options. In fact, many of the roles were beneath his abilities, but paid well enough to garner his fleeting interest.

Machine Gun McCain is clearly one of these fly-by-night endeavors. Even with a score by the sensational Ennio Morricone, there is very little that sets it apart from other basic b-movies. The first 45-minutes is all disconnected dialogue, lines read at random by performers who seem wholly perplexed by what they are saying. With her thick Swedish accent and limited screen time, Ekland suffers the most. She has meaningful words with Cassavetes that just don't add up. One moment she'll ignore him. The next, she marries him. During a day trip to Vegas, she'll argue their love before instantly bouncing over into accomplice mode. It's as if the men sitting at their Italian typewriters, "freely" adapting Ovid Demaris' novel Candylegs, came up with lots of little individuals lines of dialogue. They then threw each one up in the air, waiting to see where they fall before piecing them back together willy-nilly and turning said scraps into conversations. It's enough to make you scratch your head clean off.

Sometimes, we can buy this baffling approach. Falk is fine as a little mafia man who wants to turn big time and he delivers his contradictory couplets with ease. Joe Pesci circa Casino was clearly inspired by this turn. Similarly, Rowlands shows up in the last act as a former fling (and incarcerated co-defendant) of McCain's who must help him escape while keeping the entire city of LA from collecting on the contractual bounty. She's amazing to watch, even if her mouth is saying things that only a translator with Tourettes could comprehend. Equally compelling is director Montaldo's work during the two main action scenes. The first follows McCain as he sets up and executes the heist. The second sees him trying to escape detection and ending up in a high speed car chase. Both are delivered in full octane edge of your seat style. Too bad they only comprise ten minutes of the movie's hour and a half running time.

Even in a remastered state that brings the lame late '60s fashions to drolly dated life, Machine Gun McCain suffers from a severe case of "too little" syndrome. There is too little of Cassavetes menace and machismo to completely win us over. There's too little sex appeal and far too little stunt work. In fact, if it wasn't for the by the book mechanics of the bombing and break-in, if it weren't for our genuine good will towards the American actors and their Norse cohort, we wouldn't really care at all. Machine Gun McCain may be a revelation for anyone unfamiliar with the grim gangster flick pre- Godfather and Goodfellas. But being dark and dour doesn't translate into being delightful. While successful in reinventing other genres, the Italians really blew it with this bland crime saga.


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