Lee Van Cleef is one of the most recognizable actors in the spaghetti western genre. If he'd done nothing more than turn in his fantastic performances in For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad & the Ugly he would have cemented his place in fans' hearts. But those two genre-defining films were just the beginning for Lee Van Cleef. A bit player in Hollywood for years, he had never been able to land any really big starring roles but a movie fan with sharp eyes can spot him in dozens of films starting in 1952's High Noon. He was the man tasked with shooting a radioactive bullet into The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, a gangster in several 1950s Noirs and seems to have appeared in at least one episode of every western television series produced in the '50s and '60s. His one starring role in '
was as the deluded scientist who helps an alien from Venus attack our planet in
Roger Corman's It Conquered the World in 1956. I'd love to know what
he thought his chances for career enhancement were when he signed on to make
westerns with crazy Italians but I bet Clint Eastwood's sudden rise to stardom
caused him to think big things were possible. It certainly turned out well for
him! After the huge success of the Leone films worldwide LVC went on to star in
at least a dozen more westerns including two Sabata films, the brilliant Death
Rides a Horse, the western/mystery hybrid The Grand Duel and even a Magnificent
Seven sequel. With Take a Hard Ride Van Cleef entered into
another sub-genre, the western/blaxploitation combination - a bizarre
amalgam that deserves a book written about it though it was woefully
short-lived. This was also his second collaboration with veteran Italian
director Antonio Margheriti with whom he'd made The Stranger and the
Gunfighter just the year before and would work with again in 1983 for Codename:
Wild Geese. While Take a Hard Ride wouldn't rank near the top of
either man's resume it is a solid movie even if its flaws are all too apparent
and, all too often, silly.
Since they get the lion's share of screen time one could argue effectively that the real stars of this film are Jim Brown (Black Gunn) and Fred Williamson (The Inglorious Bastards). Indeed, after a brief sequence at the very start of the film to set up Van Cleef as cold-hearted bounty hunter Kiefer, it becomes clear that the focus of the tale will be Brown's character, Pike. Pike is the trusted right-hand man of rancher Morgan (Dana Andrews), who has just gotten a herd of cattle to market. The herd was a communal project for the small Mexican town Morgan is hoping to help become a stable ranching community. Sadly, the night after the sale the old man dies of a heart attack and with his final breath asks Pike to make sure the $86,000 gets back to the town. Pike takes this responsibility seriously and sets out to keep his pledge even as every criminally minded scumbag within 100 miles starts making plans to rob him. Among these dastardly folks is professional gambler and card cheat Tyree (Williamson). Being smarter than the average crook he meets up with Pike and first helps him fight off a group of bandits before informing him he wants the money just as much as anyone else. But having formed a mutual respect the two men decide to work together until they get to
Mexico when all bets will be off.
Bounty hunter Kiefer decides to make a grab for the money but after witnessing the gunplay skills Pike and Tyree possess he opts to pull most of the criminals hunting for them into a group to have a better chance. Offing the few that don't want to join up or running them off the trail he follows along while the two black men trade verbal quips and sniff after the other's possible breaking points. In their trek across the desert landscape the two partners come across a stage under attack by some bandits. Killing the bad guys they rescue ex-prostitute Catherine (Catherine Spaak) but are too late to save her good hearted husband. She elects to travel with them until a town can be reached and in tow is her servant/bodyguard Kashtok (Jim Kelly), a half-Indian mute who appears to have studied under Bruce Lee. Will this group of four be able reach civilization alive and with the money or any combination of the two?