Thursday, 2 July 2015

The Last Grenade (1970)

The mercenary action movie was a very small sub-genre that perhaps surprisingly produced two great movies, Dark of the Sun (1968) and The Wild Geese (1978). Sadly The Last Grenade doesn’t even come close to the quality of those films although it did have definite potential.

Major Harry Grigsby (Stanley Baker) and Kip Thompson (Alex Cord) are mercenaries in Africa. Thompson betrays Grigsby and kills most of his men in the process. This betrayal provides the movie’s best moments in the form of the superb action set-piece that opens the movie, with a truly stupendous number of explosions.

Grigsby wants revenge and he gets the chance when the British government hires him to hunt Thompson down and kill him. Thompson has been causing them major problems in Hong Kong. The British want him dead but they don’t want to be seen to be involved. General Charles Whiteley (Richard Attenborough) will give Grigsby as much assistance as possible, on an unofficial basis of course.

Grigsby teams up with his old comrades Sergeant Gordon Mackenzie (Andrew Keir), Andy Royal (Julian Glover) and Terry MItchell (John Thaw). His plans for revenge don’t exactly go smoothly. In fact they go very badly and Grigsby ends up in hospital in Hong Kong.

Grigsby is a very sick man. He has tuberculosis and he knows time is running out for him. While recuperating he and General Whiteley’s wife Katherine (Honor Blackman) fall in love and begin an affair. It’s at this point that the movie loses its way badly. The romantic sub-plot does serve an important purpose in advancing the plot but unfortunately it does so in a very obvious and predictable manner, and the romantic scenes are clumsy, unconvincing and tedious.

Oddly enough, rather than humanising the hero the romance ends up making him both less sympathetic and less convincing - Grigsby doesn’t really seem the type to steal another man’s wife in such an underhanded and sleazy manner. On the other hand while I would hazard a guess that we’re supposed to see Katherine Whiteley as a free spirit trapped in a dull marriage to me she comes across as being exactly the sort of woman who would betray her husband.

The romance also brings the main plot to a standstill, and it never regains its momentum.

On the plus side there’s the strong cast. Stanley Baker has the charisma to carry off the rôle of Grigsby in fine style. Andrew Keir, John Thaw and Julian Glover provide fine support although the latter two are unfortunately rather under-used. Richard Attenborough manages to bring both the necessary pomposity and the necessary dignity to his performance as General Whiteley. Honor Blackman does her best and it’s hardly her fault that her character serves little purpose.

The weak link is Alex Cord’s ham-fisted performance as Kip Thompson. He’s an odd character for such a film - a crazed drug-addled hippie mercenary. Cord’s performance is hopelessly muddled and unconvincing.

The contrast between Grigsby, the old school professional soldier who (despite being a mercenary) has old-fashioned notions of honour and loyalty, and the calculatingly cynical but deranged Thompson could have been interesting. Unfortunately Thompson never becomes more than a cartoon villain.

Director Gordon Flemyng spent most of his career in television. While he shows considerable skill in handling the action sequences the movie suffers from very poor pacing and whenever the focus shifts away from the action it becomes dull and lifeless.

The biggest problem is that while the action scenes are good there aren’t enough of them. In particular the ending falls very flat - we assume it’s all leading up to a spectacular climax but it just doesn’t happen.

Scorpio Releasing have issued some rather interesting 1960s and 1970s cult films on DVD and they’ve done a pretty fair job with The Last Grenade. Picture quality is mostly very good. There are no extras.

In spite of a few good moments The Last Grenade is on the whole a disappointment - it goes off not with a bang but a whimper. Maybe worth a look if you’re a very dedicated Stanley Baker fan.

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