One of the reasons blaxploitation was a reliable trend during the 1970’s because it could be adapted to any previous existing genre. Everything from horror (Blacula) to spy flicks (That Man Bolt) to comedies (Monkey Hustle) was cranked out by enterprising filmmakers to frequently successful effect.
The western genre in particularly worked well when crossbred with blaxploitation. Fred Williamson knew this well because he made several during his 1970’s heyday. Perhaps the most unusual of his sagebrush soul adventures was Take A Hard Ride, a blend of blaxploitation and spaghetti western that reunited him with his Three The Hard Way costars Jim Brown and Jim Kelly.
The plot of Take A Hard Ride adds a third genre – the chase movie – into the mix. Brown drives the plot as Pike, a former tough guy who has settled down to work with rancher Morgan (Dana Andrews) and finance a ranch in Mexico. Before Morgan dies from a heart attack, he makes Pike swear to get their earnings for a head of cattle – $86,000 – back to the Mexican ranch. Of course, it doesn’t take long for the news to spread and a variety of scalawags are trying to take out Pike. Leading the pack of pursuers is Kiefer (Lee Van Cleef), an icy bounty hunter with an ends-justifies-the-means mentality.
Pike’s only offer of help comes from fast-talking gambler Tyree (Williamson), who pledges to help him get where he’s going but promises he’ll fight him for the money once they get there. Along the way, Pike and Tyree join forces with ex-prostitute (Catherine Spaak) and her mute halfbreed bodyguard, Kashtok (Kelly). This motley crew makes a run for the border but Kiefer is never far behind – and Kiefer himself has competition for Pike’s bankroll, including a shifty lawman named Kane (Barry Sullivan).
Take A Hard Ride‘s strongest element is its narrative drive: the script, penned by t.v. vets Eric Bercovici and Jerry Ludwig, hits the ground running and piles on the characters and setpieces as it dashes towards the end credits. It’s a bit slim on characterization, relying on the actors to flesh out its gallery of familiar types, and is so overstuffed that it never has time to develop those characters or any kind of themes. Thus, the preponderance of elements never pay off the way they could.
That said, Take A Hard Ride works if taken as a breezy programmer. Brown and Williamson have strong chemistry (poor Kelly seems like more of an add-on for the kung-fu crowd here) and Van Cleef is reliably menacing as the main villain. The film leans heavily on their personas and each delivers. Williamson seems to be having the most fun here, strutting around in fancy duds and using a sing-song style of line delivery that suits his rogueish character to a ‘t.’
It also helps that the film is vigorously directed by Antonio Margheriti (using his Anglo pseudonym Anthony M. Dawson here). He was no stranger to western crossbreeds, having directed the kung-fu/spaghetti western hybrid The Stranger And The Gunfighter the year before, and he applies himself with kinetic verve here. He keeps his camera mobile, framing everything in a beautifully stylized way with the help of Italian D.P. Riccardo Pallottini, and his intense energy keeps the film on track.
Margheriti also piles on the action and it has a nice rough-and-tumble feel thanks to ace stunt choreography by future car-chase movie king Hal Needham, who also directed the 2nd unit here. The cherry on top is a grand Jerry Goldsmith musical score that mixes a soaring, Elmer Bernstein-esque main theme with plenty of Morricone-styled offbeat touches (listen for the harmonica-plus-synth motif used for Van Cleef’s character).
Simply put, Take A Hard Ride is a programmer – but it’s a programmer with a surplus of energy, a great tough guy cast and a breezy, ready-to-please style of personality. As a result, it’s likely to entertain blaxploitation and spaghetti western buffs alike.