TUAREG: THE DESERT WARRIOR
(Italy/Spain - 1984; US release 1986)
THE NEW BARBARIANS, and ESCAPE FROM THE BRONX, Italian action auteur Enzo G. Castellari tried to channel his inner David Lean with TUAREG: THE DESERT WARRIOR, which wants to be another LAWRENCE OF ARABIA but doesn't quite pull it off. The film was also a one-and-done venture into Italian action for Mark Harmon, the former college football star who already had an established TV career (ABC's 240-ROBERT, NBC's FLAMINGO ROAD) and was one season into a four-year stint on NBC's ST. ELSEWHERE, but was looking for big-screen stardom beyond supporting roles in COMES A HORSEMAN (1978) and BEYOND THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1979). He didn't find it with TUAREG: THE DESERT WARRIOR, which didn't even get a US theatrical release and ended up going straight to network TV, premiering on CBS in 1986, presumably to capitalize on Harmon's Golden Globe-nominated turn as serial killer Ted Bundy in the controversial NBC miniseries THE DELIBERATE STRANGER that same year. Blue-eyed California native Harmon is hilariously miscast as Gacel Sayeh, a leader of the nomadic Tuareg tribe in the Sahara. Beholden to centuries of custom, Sayeh is outraged when a military captain (Antonio Sabato) and his underling Sgt. Malick (spaghetti western fixture Aldo Sambrell) kidnap his guest, political fugitive Abdul El Kabir (Luis Prendes), who's being hunted by the country's newly-instilled regime. Exiled Kabir showed up at the Tuareg camp in need of water, and the captain intends to turn him over to those currently in power. Bound by rules of the Tuareg, Sayeh must avenge the dishonoring of his guest, and turns into a North African Rambo, hunting down the flunkies of the new minister (Paul Costello), while trying to be peacefully reined in by the sympathetic Capt. Razman (Paolo Malco), TUAREG's de facto Col. Trautman, who's always accompanied by a grinning officer who bears an uncanny resemblance to Germs and Foo Fighters guitarist Pat Smear.
Shot on location in Israel, TUAREG: THE DESERT WARRIOR is unusually ambitious for Castellari, who seems to have a big budget here and was obviously trying for something more epic in scope than his usual genre fare. The legitimately unexpected twist at the end is further evidence that Castellari was attempting to make a statement about something, but the execution of the film is so muddled and the pace so slow that it's hard to conclude his exact intentions. TUAREG might've worked better with a Castellari stalwart like Franco Nero or Fabio Testi or even 1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS' Mark Gregory headlining because it never overcomes the ill-advised casting of a perplexed-looking Harmon who, even though he dubs himself, sounds like he's reading off cue cards he's just now seeing for the first time. There's an undeniable curiosity value in seeing the future Sexiest Man Alive blowing shit up and guzzling camel blood in an obscure Italian actioner, but the film just doesn't work, and he's a big reason why. Harmon would eventually get some better-suited movie gigs after THE DELIBERATE STRANGER, with 1987's very enjoyable SUMMER SCHOOL and Peter Hyams' glossy 1988 thriller THE PRESIDIO, where he was paired with Sean Connery, fresh off of his UNTOUCHABLES Oscar win. Ultimately, Harmon was deemed an actor better suited for TV, always working but a bit of a late bloomer who finally found his niche in 2003 at the age of 52 with what will very likely go down as his signature role: no-nonsense investigator Leroy Jethro Gibbs on CBS' enormously popular and still-going-strong NCIS. Castellari would soon get back to his usual routine with 1985's bonkers, laser-beaming LIGHT BLAST. TUAREG also features Castellari stock company regulars Romano Puppo, Enio Girolami, Ottaviano Dell'Acqua, Massimo Vanni, and Giovanni Cianfriglia, along with a brief appearance by Ian "Kendal from PIECES" Sera as a reporter. (Unrated, 102 mins)