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Review: The Duellists

Alien: Covenant was a pretty big disappointment. In trying to both build upon the themes he introduced in Prometheus and recapture the style and structure of the original Alien, Ridley Scott produced a film so tonally indecisive that it couldn’t possibly please anyone. So, hoping to rediscover the Scott that I fell in love with, I went back to the beginning of his illustrious career and watched The Duellists, his directorial debut, for the first time.

It certainly delivered, though I must admit that the premise stacked the odds in its favor. Essentially, The Duellists takes my favorite trope from samurai cinema—the bitter, borderline obsessive enmity between the honorable protagonist (here played by Keith Carradine at his most charming) and his hot-headed rival (a delightfully belligerent Harvey Keitel)—and stretches it out to feature length. The details of the titular duelists’ everyday lives—which include injuries, illnesses, arrests, marriages, and the entirety of the Napoleonic Wars—are mere obstacles between them and their appointed fight to the death, serving only to further fuel their aggression and bloodlust. Whether the combatants are armed with foils, rapiers, sabers, or pistols, their repeated clashes always look absolutely spectacular; the handheld camera often dances dangerously close to the action, ratcheting up the tension by making the viewer feel like a third participant, rather than a passive observer. That Scott is able to find such brutal intimacy in a narrative that spans a decade and a half stands testament to his immense talent as a filmmaker.

In short: The Duellists ended up being the perfect antidote to Covenant’s excesses, and I look forward to getting swept up in its violence and grandeur again and again.

[Originally written May 27, 2017.]

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