Dubbing itself the first “borscht Western,” “Jonathan of the Bears” is a lively Franco Nero genre pic, shot entirely in Russia. A mixed Italian, Russian and U.S. cast and crew blend smoothly in a tale about a loner who takes on a town of evildoers in defense of the Indians who raised him. Pic could do some theatrical biz before passing to TV and video.
Action helmer Enzo G. Castellari (“The Great White”) got this cherished project off the ground in the wake of recent hits like “Dances with Wolves” and “The Last of the Mohicans.” However, for all its Native American slant, “Jonathan” feels much more like a descendant of the glorious Sergio Leone horse operas, though sans their technical innovations.
Story is told in flashbacks that shuttle back-and-forth from Jonathan’s childhood to maturity. After witnessing the cold-blooded murder of his parents by three white robbers, six-year-old Jonathan is befriended first by a playful bear cub, then by a wise Indian chief (Floyd “Red Crow” Westerman).
The chief prefers the blond towhead to his own son, Chatow, and a rivalry develops between the boys. Later in life, grown-up Jonathan (Nero) and Chatow (Knifewing Segura) are still at odds when the chief is laid out in the sacred burial ground.
After years of hunting his parents’ killers, revenge has left Jonathan empty. His archery skills and rescues of the weak and oppressed (Indian women, wounded bears), have made him a legend.
Lead by the ruthless Fred Goodwin (John Saxon), a pack of oil-hungry killers descends on a western town. When Goodwin notices black gold bubbling out of the Indian burial ground, he touches off a war consummated in one long action sequence of falling horses and flying arrows.
Following the captured Indian beauty Shaya (an unlikely Melody Robertson) into town, Jonathan is taken prisoner. The godless Goodwin has him “crucified” on the church tower, leaving him to die.
Saved by a remorseful black killer (Bobby Rhodes), Jonathan proceeds to mow down the town’s remaining male population in a long, drawn-out stalking sequence.
Though hordes of people die in “Jonathan,” Castellari prefers action-packed shootouts to bloody realism. His obvious fondness for the Old West shows in the detailed sets (built on an army base outside Moscow) and lovingly incorporated Indian lore.
Mikhail Agranovich’s lensing captures an outdoor sense of stormy skies, forests, rivers and plains — even if there are a suspicious number of Russian birch trees around.
Nero makes a dashing, soulful lone wolf. Though he looks a little overage to be blood-brother to the handsome Segura, thesp has an innate class that saves him from ridicule in many awkward situations, like killing a trapper to save a bear, or hanging on a cross.
Saxon is self-assured as the gentleman-villain. The Indian tribe has a curious Eskimo look, with the exception of the fine Westerman and Segura, both Native Americans, and the attractive but mute Robertson as Jonathan’s love interest.