Before Wesley Snipes the original Blade was Maurizio Merli. In his only spaghetti western the mighty moustachioed Euro-crime icon portrays a hard-bitten bounty hunter whom we first glimpse hunting outlaw Burt Craven (Euro-cult cinema fixture Donald O'Brien) through the mud-drenched, misty wilderness. Their chase comes to a memorable end when Blade (or 'Mannaja' in the original Italian version) slings his trusty hatchet slicing off Burt's right hand. When Blade arrives with Burt in Suttonville he finds the town is ruled with an iron fist by the wealthy and powerful George M. McGowan (Philippe Leroy, looking much more frail and haggard than in his leading man days) who is not only the mayor but also runs the local mine. Blade, who already bears McGowan a hefty grudge for stealing his family's land and causing the death of his father, clashes with the tycoon's oily right hand Waller (the reliably venomous John Steiner). One particularly violent skirmish sees Blade injured and trapped under a rock-slide. Whereupon he is rescued and nursed back to health by Angela (Martine Brochard), part of a band of travelling showgirls led by improbably-named showman Johnny Johnny (Salvatore Puntillo). When bandits in league with the unscrupulous Waller kidnap McGowan's precious daughter Deborah (Sonja Jeannine), the desperate businessman turns to Blade who tries to use the situation to his advantage.
Italian westerns breathed their last gasp in the late Seventies with a mini-wave of brooding, surrealistic pictures that infused the genre with interestingly artsy, psychological, sometimes even mystical undertones. Chief among these was Enzo G. Castellari's masterful Keoma (1976), an outstanding vehicle for Euro-cult icon Franco Nero. Maurizio Merli, who rose to prominence in Euro-crime as something of a Franco Nero impersonator and reportedly regarded the more versatile international star as a great rival, promptly shot back with Mannaja, sold outside Europe as A Man Called Blade or latterly a combination of both titles. Merli had the good fortune to ally himself with Sergio Martino, the versatile, often visually inspired craftsman behind numerous giallo horror-thrillers who later proved as adept at other genres. Martino imbues Mannaja with a gloomy gothic intensity not far removed from Keoma but with its own distinctive downbeat identity. Images of rolling mists and what must be record levels of mud in a spaghetti western combine with ominous, unsettling sound effects, dreamlike slow-motion and visceral splatter effects create a mood akin to a horror movie. As if to underline the film's debt to vintage Euro-horror, John Steiner leads a couple of huge, ferocious looking dogs similar to those that accompanied Barbara Steele in an iconic image from Mario Bava's genre landmark Black Sunday (1960). Martino also punctuates the film with flashbacks and dreamlike visions that evoke the fragmented flourishes Nicholas Roeg brought to Don't Look Now (1973).
In terms of cinematic virtuosity Mannaja is audacious and fascinating. Where it falls apart slightly is the story. Concocted by Martino with co-scripter Sauro Scavolini, it is shapeless, derivative of Sergio Leone westerns (offering more muddled takes on the antihero plays both sides angle in A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and revenge-motivating flashbacks of Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)) and confuses tragedy with nihilism. While the plot works hard to make Blade seem sympathetic, our protagonist (one would hardly call him a hero) proves spectacularly inept at saving people. It is never entirely clear exactly what Blade's end goal is meant to be given his actions, along with those of a significant portion of the cast, are wildly inconsistent. Though he occasionally springs into dynamic action sequence, he spends more time pottering ineffectually on the sidelines. Meanwhile the film racks up a genocidal body-count of innocent bystanders. Martino and Scavolini waver between a standard spaghetti western revenge story and a vague environmental message wherein Blade seemingly sets out to avenge the rape of his land by destroying McGowan, though as things play out neither angle adds up. If the story has a theme at all it might well be: why bother chasing dreams when you are bound to wind up face down in the mud anyway? Although Blade himself is not among the most well-etched spaghetti western protagonists, Merli's steely-eyed intensity proves as compelling as ever. Similarly John Steiner's effete villainy is the perfect complement to the leading man even though the actor sounds like he is attempting Southern, German and English accents simultaneously. Like Keoma, Mannaja also has a croaky folk rock ballad composed by Guido and Maurizio De Angelis that, while something of an acquired taste, captures the film's grimy downbeat tone.