Gruner for Hire: Mercenary (1996)

Matty gets to grips with one of Israeli auteur Avi Nesher’s best pictures.

Like the bulk of Avi Nesher’s movies, MERCENARY would benefit from a few trims to its bloated run time. However, by and large, the Israeli writer/producer/director’s third of five teamings with Gallic bruiser Olivier Gruner (following Automatic (1995) and Savage (1996), ahead of Mars (1997) and Mercenary II: Thick and Thin (1998)) is quality stuff. Among the fascinating if scattershot Nesher’s most fully realised efforts, this irresistible action romp — produced under his Mahagonny Pictures banner — is laced with a wealth of exciting set pieces and several genuinely surprising narrative developments. 

Scripted by Nesher and Steven Hartov (a former Israel Defense Forces paratrooper turned military journalist, screenwriter, and New York Times bestselling author who’d pair with the filmmaker again on Mars, Acts of Betrayal (1997), The Point Men (2001), and Mercenary’s sequel [1]), the film grabs from the get-go. In a wickedly bloodthirsty opening inspired by the Salman Rushdie fatwa, a gala event held by a businessman (John Ritter) in honour of a controversial novelist goes south when a swarm of Islamic extremists led by Martin Kove’s sadistic “terrorist for hire” storm the party, killing the writer and Ritter’s beloved wife. When the U.S. government refuse to do anything about it (“He’s out of our jurisdiction”), the grief-stricken Ritter takes matters into his own hands and hires Gruner’s eponymous soldier of fortune to extract revenge — though as Mercenary chugs along, it soon becomes clear that Kove is operating at the behest of a threat closer to home… 

While those with a thirst for gratuitous mayhem are amply catered for thanks to Nesher’s fetishistic lingering on gun fights, explosions, and bare-knuckle dust-ups (the latter of which are all choreographed by Gruner), it’s the succulent spread of compelling characters and performances that offer Mercenary’s richest pleasures. The cast — which, alongside Gruner, Ritter and Kove, includes Robert Culp, Ed Lauter, Michael Zelnicker, and Nils Allen Stewart — are uniformly excellent and submit shaded turns that complement their roles’ often unexpected motivations. With Ritter’s broken tycoon insisting that Gruner let him tag along (“There’s one condition: I’m going with you, and I’m pulling the trigger”), the quietly affecting relationship that develops between the seemingly chalk n’ cheese pair is the heart of the movie — especially when the two of them discover that their moral codes are, in fact, shockingly similar.

Lensing in San Diego, Utah, Mexico, and Nesher’s homeland between November ‘95 and January ‘96 (five months after Savage wrapped), Mercenary premiered on HBO on 17th January 1997 and subsequently hit U.S. video via Polygram. It was released on British cassette by Hollywood Pictures/Buena Vista Home Entertainment in May ‘97, just under a month before their tape of Savage landed on shelves.

USA ● 1996 ● Action ● 102mins

Olivier Gruner, John Ritter, Martin Kove, Robert Culp ● Dir. Avi Nesher ● Wri. Avi Nesher (as ‘Patrick Highsmith’) & Steven Hartov, story by Avi Nesher (as ‘Patrick Highsmith’) 

[1] Additionally, Hartov also served as Nesher’s weapons consultant on Taxman (1998) and Raw Nerve (1999).

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