Terence Hill and Bud Spencer join Eli Wallach in Nebulously Entertaining Spaghetti Western
DIRECTED BY GIUSEPPE COLIZZI/1968
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: SEPTEMBER 20, 2022/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
It’s a dirt-dusty world of toothless varmints in sombreros and drunken hired guns wearing bullet bandoliers. In other words, (and to use a phrase some jerk coined not all that long ago,) a lot of baaaad hombres. In other other words, just another stop in yet another spaghetti Western in the late ‘60s.
Giuseppe Colizzi’s Ace High (I quattro dell’Ave Maria, literally translated as “The Four of the Hail Mary“) is part two of a trilogy of such movies, the first being 1967’s God Forgives… I Don’t!, the third being 1969’s Boot Hill. (The novelty of the titles diminishes a little each time). There isn’t much that sets it apart from the then-current glut of such efforts, as it tells the tale of a small pack of no-good drifters who team up to take down a fat-cat casino owner called Drake (Kevin McCarthy, note-perfectly despicable). What’s most noteworthy about Ace High is that it marks the first substantial onscreen pairing of Terence Hill and Bud Spencer. (They both factored into the first film of this series but shared very few scenes). Hill and Spencer, one lean and the other burly, respectively, would go on to feature in a run of comical Westerns. Their chemistry isn’t perfect here, but one can see the makings of a winning pair.
Ace High itself hovers uncomfortably somewhere between discernible forms, not quite comedy, and not a hard-hitting actioner. The highlight of its first half is a prolonged mass shootout, racking up a shockingly severe (though largely bloodless) death count. But alongside of that, Colizzi happily goes in for corny sight gags and slapstick schtick. Only in the final climactic portion, when the protagonists hatch their plot to take down Drake, does the overly long (123 minutes when it could easily be ninety) Ace High click into gear.
Eli Wallach takes top billing, no doubt thanks to his turn as Tuco, aka Sergio Leone’s “the Bad” or “the Ugly”, depending on your point of view. Here he’s a hammy dorkchester, perpetually sporting a lair of filthy sweat and beady-eyed self-assurance. It’s gotten him this far, anyway.
From the way Ace High starts, however, you wouldn’t be a fool for assuming that Terence Hill is the star. He plays none other than Cat Stevens- not that Cat Stevens. This gunfighter is a long way from any Peace Train. Doing his best Eastwood Man With No Name, he wears his hat low, smokes a tight cheroot between clinched teeth, and hones his baby blues to unsettling effect. At least, moderately unsettling. Hill is effective as a competent Western hero/antihero, but like everyone else in the shadow of The Man himself, he’s no Clint Eastwood.
Big fella Bud Spencer is Hutch, Stevens’ mostly-trusted partner in crime, or whatever it is they’re engaging in. Right away, they pull off a gold heist. Hutch immediately goes all in for a gentlemanly new suit. But, no sooner does he get rich than he kicks up a street brawl. So much for his dapper new duds; back to dirty trail wear and unseasonal matted furs. Soon, their money is all taken, with Wallach at the crux of the tangled path it takes. Spencer’s Hutch may not be immediately magnetic, but by the end, we’re game for more adventures with he and Cat.
Any well-organized multi-pronged plot requires a competent team, and the one hatched at the end of Ace High is no exception. While there’s no recruitment montage, versed viewers will likely know that when our main characters take the time to watch a stranger with a very specific expertise do their thing, that stranger is getting recruited. Brock Peters plays Thomas, a sharp-shooting tightrope walker who shoots hats off aggressor’s heads rather than plug ‘em outright. What a hambone he is in this. And yes, in the final act, he’s definitely in the mix.
While the transfer on this KL Studio Classics Blu-ray looks excellent, it also looks its proper age. That’s a winning combination for vintage film buffs, who don’t prefer to see the film grain and subsequently bygone color palates altered. The disc utilizes an official HD master provided by Paramount Pictures, taken from a 4K scan of the 35mm original camera negative. That’s not just jargon hooey!
Filmmaker Alex Cox (Straight to Hell; Highway Patrolman), KLSC’s go-to expert for spaghetti Westerns, is once again in the audio commentary saddle. Cox is always prone to silent lulls on his quiet tracks, though he always makes good with obscure facts, trivia, and his own vehement opinions. For a film like this one, in this case having established what would be an ongoing western-comedy repartee between Hill and Spencer, Cox has a diverse range of things he appreciates and things he does not appreciate. And he lets them all be known.
Ace High doesn’t always deal a winning hand, as it drags in several spots, gets far more talky than most any spaghetti Western worth its salt, and really doesn’t click until they unite to go after Drake. But, KL Studio Classics has done right by the movie, right down to including its theatrical trailer and a slipcover over the case. While its own roulette marble never quite lands on “13”, it’s fun to see how the one in movie manages to do so again and again.