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Director Antonio Margheriti's Vietnam piece is bound to be loved by some audiences and hated by others. This is simply not a film for all tastes. On the surface, it looks like cruel exploitation of a controversial war; exploiting Vietnam was certainly a risky move in 1980. Dig a little deeper, though, and "The Last Hunter" becomes a brutal allegory on the futility of warfare.
Margheriti tells a straightforward tale: Captain Morris (David Warbeck) heads into Cambodia with a small band of soldiers on a mission to find and destroy an enemy radio station which is broadcasting disgusting anti-American propaganda. Along the way, he encounters many people and situations which point to the ultimate insanity of warfare.
Margheriti begins his tale with one of the best opening sequences ever put to film. Morris tries to relax in a Saigon bar, making conversation with another GI whom he's never met. Soft music plays in the background, providing a perfect tempo for the dialog. It's not long, however, before Morris realizes that he escape the realities of the war outside. The music stops abruptly as the tone changes from quiet to tense: Steve has been aggravated by the aforementioned GI. He shoots him in the head, and then turns the gun on himself. As if on key, enemy sappers attack the city, and the bar is destroyed; only Morris escapes. A first-time viewer may see this scene as unnecessary, but the characters and themes will become crucial to the plot as Morris moves closer and closer to his objective.
With the mood established and the audience glued to the screen, Margheriti shifts his focus to the Cambodian jungle. Morris is escorted to the drop-off point by helicopter in yet another excellently shot sequence: Franco Micalazzi's score comes out full force for just a few moments as the action builds, and then dies. Margheriti lets some great hand-held camera action and excellent, fast-paced editing do the work. This scene will be followed by a number of quick, brutal action sequences: the discovery a rotting corpse, an ambush by a band of Viet Cong in a burned-out village; and a great sequence in which Massimo Vanni's character is forced to run into the jungle under enemy fire to retrieve cocoanuts for the unhinged Major Cash (John Steiner). The high point of the action is definitely a Viet Cong raid on an underground American bunker complex, in which hordes of black-pajama-clad guerrillas emerge and a firefight ensues. For the most part, the American characters are drunk or stoned and don't seem to know what's going on. This long sequence is shot in the dark with hand-held cameras, features lots of cutting from action to reaction all while a radio plays happy tunes in the background.
All of this builds to a pulsating surprise ending. Morris does find his radio station the audience knows he will from the start; it's no surprise in a film like this but the voice of propaganda will come as a shock as all of the pieces laid out in the opening scenes and flashbacks come together. We've had some subtle hints and little suggestions as to who Morris is going to encounter, but nobody will come to the conclusion until the character steps into frame. The result is a jaw-dropping scene with an outcome that goes completely against the norm. The final shot of the piece is one of confusion, awe and surprise we never do get to find out what happens to an essential character. If the violence and pure insanity of most of the movie don't shock you, the last two few minutes surely will.
Admittedly, "The Last Hunter" is not a perfect film: basic plot aspects are lifted directly from "Apocalypse Now" Morris' character is a take on Martin Sheen, while Major Cash and his bunch seem to be loosely based on Marlon Brando's guerrilla force. Instead of a trek upriver in a small boat, we follow a mixed group of soldiers through the sweltering jungles. (Only here, they're too busy dodging booby traps to discuss heavy issues of morality). More blatantly, a sequence depicting Morris' imprisonment in an underwater bamboo cage reeks of "The Deer Hunter". Some of the special effects scenes come up a bit below par for a 1980s film: watch for a dummy which gets flamed during the village skirmish; superimposed rocket bursts around a helicopter; and there are a few cheesy miniatures.
These are only minor flaws. "The Last Hunter" is an anti-war gem which can be enjoyed by fans of Italian exploitation (Margheriti said that he wanted to shoot the film seriously; the producers forced him to throw in exploitative content to draw in fans of his successful horror works). Any serious war film fans that can make it through the opening without dismissing this as graphic trash will not be disappointed. It's not often that a director can make a great action picture that's still considered an anti-war piece.
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