Ricco The Mean Machine
directed by Tulio Demicheli
starring Christopher Mitchum and Barbara Bouchet
Dark Sky Films
“What kind of man are you?” It’s one of the most implicitly asked questions in revenge films. What level of gruesomeness, how high of a family body count is it going to take for the blood lust to finally win out over reason in a level-headed protagonist’s mind?
Tulio Demicheli’s Ricco The Mean Machine was released in 1973, before the traditional groundwork was laid by genre mainstays like Charles Bronson’s Death Wish series, but in the wake of Shaft and the first wave of Blaxploitation pictures. Given the genre’s relative infancy there was more room for Demicheli to play with expectations — foremost among these, casting Robert Mitchum’s lanky, blond son, Christopher, as the lead. As Ricco, he’s the son of a murdered mob boss who’s recently released from prison for unsuccessfully attempting to kill his father’s successor, Don Vito (Arthur Kennedy). He’s decked out in bell bottoms, bright orange turtlenecks, and a pageboy haircut not unlike Javier Bardem’s ‘do in No Country For Old Men. He’s about as threatening as Greg Brady and his detached, wooden delivery just isn’t the caliber of Bronson or his father, for that matter. It’s as though a displaced hippie/surfer from Easy Rider wound up the progeny of a mafioso.
Mitchum’s Ricco is far from his father’s son, having refused to become involved in the cold-blooded family business until the bulk of his kin and friends are gunned down by the new boss’s henchmen. It’s a slow, subtle change, not the instantaneous snap that’s come to typify the genre. Ricco seems genuinely ambivalent enough to let the murders slide, or absurdly affecting an attitude that he’ll get around to retribution eventually.
If Ricco himself doesn’t fit the bill for the genre, Demicheli doesn’t skimp on the female co-stars. Barbara Bouchet plays Scilla, the niece of one of Ricco’s few remaining confidants and the cousin of his kidnapped girlfriend. True to exploitive form, Bouchet is introduced with numerous close-up T&A shots before the audience even sees her face. Her introduction brings some much needed humor and emotion to counteract Mitchum’s deadpan delivery. Bouchet (along with the other two female characters) has the requisite nude/sex scenes, and trumps the rest for the most surreal shedding of clothes — she does an extended striptease in the middle of a bridge on a foggy night to distract two of Don Vito’s goons long enough for Ricco to sink them into the river below.
The film also does its Italian shock cinema roots proud on the violence front; the gun play blooms into squib-fests with day-glow blood coating everything. Ever the enterprising mobster, Vito even has a rendering vat at a constant boil for turning his enemies and felled minions into bars of soap in which he smuggles drugs and diamonds. The film’s most disturbing scene — actually cut from some versions — features an extremely graphic, realistic and gratuitous castration of one of these minions. It’s a rough one to watch…
Ricco The Mean Machine never reached the cult status many of its mid-’70s peers attained, but it’s easily one of the more interesting takes on a quickly codified genre that’s worth taking a look at, thanks to this recent release on DVD.
Dark Sky Films: www.darkskyfilms.com