THE BIG RACKET
Color, 1976, 104m.
Directed by Enzo G. Castellari / Starring Fabio Testi, Vincent Gardenia, Renzo Palmer, Joshua Sinclair, Orso Maria Guerrini
Arrow Video (Blu-ray) (US/UK RA/RB HD), Blue Underground (DVD) (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Vipco (UK R2 PAL) / WS (1.85:1)
THE HEROIN BUSTERS
Color, 1977, 93m.
Directed by Enzo G. Castellari
Starring Fabio Testi, David Hemmings, Sherry Buchanan, Joshua Sinclair
Arrow Video (Blu-ray) (US/UK RA/RB HD), Blue Underground (DVD) (US R0 NTSC)
A director who turned out tough, complex studies in male-driven conflict regardless of genre, Enzo G. Castellari rarely found a better home for his gritty style than The Big Racket, an unquestionable highlight of the '70s Italian cop crime cycle. Though other films like Lucio Fulci's Contraband surpassed it in terms of sheer bloody brutality, this film still packs quite a punch with its visceral action sequences and surprisingly brutal storyline. The film proved to be a big hit and led to another immediate teaming of Castellari and leading man Fabio Testi for The Heroin Busters, with both films appropriately collected together on Blu-ray in 2022 by Arrow Video as Rogue Cops and Racketeers: Two Crime Thrillers by Enzo G. Castellari.
The set up of The Big Racket is familiar territory; in a small Italian town outside Rome, criminals control the population through intimidation of small businesses and the threat of violence if protection money isn't provided. None of this sits well with cop Nico Palmieri (Testi), who uses his sources (including Pepe, a shady Vincent Gardenia) to track the underworld activities to a ruthless British crime lord (Sinclair). When his tough tactics get him fired, Palmieri decides to round up the fed-up victims for a showdown to save the town...
Extremely difficult to see in English for years, The Big Racket features another solid leading turn by Testi as well as Gardenia, fresh off his turn as a cop in Death Wish. Along with Castellari's muscular direction, the film benefits from an unusually nasty script (co-written by crime vet Massimo de Rita from The Valachi Papers and Revolver) as well as a butt-kicking, rock-flavored score by Guido and Maurizio De Angelis. The much-praised gunshot effects are still jolting, with plenty of wild forced perspective tricks that give each bullet hit an incredible visceral kick, and Castellari has other tricks up his sleeve as well like a jaw-dropping car roll down a hill like no other you've ever seen.
The final entry in director Enzo G. Castellari's crime movie cycle of the 1970s which also included High Crime and Street Law, The Heroin Busters (released in Italy as La via della drogga) offers a particularly scuzzy, cockeyed view of Italian law enforcement. The action starts with a funky montage of drug trafficking around the world as, accompanied by the groovy strains of Goblin's score, undercover cop Fabio (Testi) poses as a drug dealer, doing business in the Far East and finally returning to Rome. There he meets British Interpol agent Mike Hamilton (Hemmings), who's concerned about keeping Fabio's identity under wraps in order to execute a plan to expose ruthless dope lord Gianni (Sinclair), whose heroin is turning the city into a writhing den of junkies.
A feisty, stylish, and enjoyably twisted contribution to the Italian cop-film genre, The Heroin Busters never received much English-language exposure outside of a few brief European tape releases. It's a shame, as both Testi and Hemmings are reputable leading men, and their chemistry makes for an engaging and sometimes funny ride. The first half of the film is fairly sedate, with Castellari charting out the territory and even going so far as to depict the effects of heroin in unflinching detail; anyone with a phobia of needles should be prepared for some traumatic close-ups. However, the story never becomes too grim to counteract the entertainment value that explodes in the second half, which ramps up the action scenes until an incredible final half-hour that features a thrilling extended chase sequence involving motorcycles, car chases, and a wild plane pursuit with a jolting punchline (sadly given away in the trailer, so be sure to only watch it after the movie!). The aforementioned Goblin score is also a big plus; coming right on the heels of Suspiria, it's one of their best and features several funky themes guaranteed to stick in your head.
As anyone unfortunate enough to view the first DVD release from Vipco (either solo or paired up with The Violent Professionals) in the UK quickly noticed, The Big Racket fell afoul of UK censors who demanded the removal of several seconds of particularly nasty rape footage. Fortunately (if that's the right word), Blue Underground restored the film to its full, brutal Italian running time for its 2006 DVD edition, which features solid image quality. The mono English track is only mediocre for the most part, but it gets the job done well enough and at least features Gardenia's original voice. Extras include the appropriately hard-hitting European theatrical trailer and an audio commentary by Castellari, who covers the high points ranging from the creation of the original script to the intricacies of staging the eye-popping shootout sequences. Likewise, Blue Underground's DVD premiere of The Heroin Busters at the same time looked excellent with sharp detail and vivid colors when they count, most notably during the neon-lit tunnel sequence during the climax. The English-dubbed mono audio sounds fine and makes good use of the lead actors' original voices, with Hemmings thankfully providing his own unmistakably sardonic inflection for maximum effect. The biggest extra here is an audio commentary with Castellari, who talks about his police films as a whole and the progression that led to the making of this film. He also covers the casting process including the selection of lone Anglo member Hemmings, then offers some good information about the impressive staging of the stunt sequences. Also included is the aforementioned spoiler-laden trailer.
It was inevitable that both films would get an upgrade to Blu-ray at some point, and the Arrow set doesn't disappoint with sterling new 2K restorations from the original 35mm camera negatives. The uptick in detail is very obvious throughout with clothing textures in particular looking more tactile, and the color timing looks great with the reds now popping dramatically during a few key scenes in Racket. As usual for Arrow, you get the option of watching the Italian or English versions with their respective main and end title sequences; it's great to finally be able to see both of these films with their two dialogue track options, and the Italian ones generally play out a lot classier if you don't mind losing the vocal performances of the American and British stars. Translated English and English SDH subtitles are included, and the DTS-HD MA 1.0 mono tracks all sound great.
Both films ditch the earlier commentaries in favor of new ones by critics Adrian J. Smith and David Flint, who have a lot of fun and know their stuff chatting about the poliziotteschi, Castellari, the tight narrative tactics of '70s Italian action films, Testi's physicality, the real-life "years of lead" social unrest in Italy at the time, and plenty more. Castellari turns up here for an interview on each disc, "The Years of Racketeering" (30m15s) and "Endless Pursuit" (24m), covering his lack of familiarity with drugs and addiction, his squeamishness with shooting up, the choice of shooting locales, the truth (hopefully) about that rolling car trick, the decision to bring back his young daughter for a pivotal (and unpleasant) role here, and much more. A very genial and relaxed Testi is also featured in two new interviews, "Violent Times" (18m59s) and "Drug Squad" (16m3s), which cover his positive working rapport with Castellari (including his boxing background and love of fine art), his roles in Italian films around that time ranging from high art to genre favorites, his background doing stunts that came in handy here, and the dire social issues plaguing Italy during the decade. Actor Massimo Vanni (who happens to be Castellari's second cousin) also gets two interviews, "Angel Face for a Tough Guy" (43m20s) and "The Drug Dealer" (21m5s), which range from his childhood memories of the director to his casting in grungy roles that required him to explore some darker sides of himself. Editor Gianfranco Amicucci gets a pair of video interview featurettes, "King of Moviola" (27m53s) and "How They Killed Italian Cinema" (20m12s), which go into the cutting of the action scenes (including Testi's "stiff punches"), his entry into the world of filmmaking, his extensive time spent in the editing room, and his thoughts on seeing the films unfold in front of his eyes. Of course, the classic soundtracks get their due from musician and soundtrack collector Lovely Jon, making a welcome return here in "The Great Racket" (44m41s) and "The Eardrum Busters"
(38m40s). Both are excellent, in-depth pieces, perhaps his best to date, as he provides tons of background about the De Angelis brothers and Goblin as well as thoughtful analyses of their musical approaches, key tracks, significant instrumentation, and their impact on music pop culture in Italy and abroad (including their comebacks for more recent generations). The Big Racket also comes with the Italian theatrical trailer and image galleries for posters, Italian fotobusta, German lobby cards, and the German pressbook, while The Heroin Busters has the English trailer and galleries for posters, Italian and German pressbooks, and German and Spanish lobby cards. However, it also features one extra, fascinating featurette, "A Cop on the Set" (23m51s), with retired poliziotto and criminologist Nicola Longo chatting about his undercover work in Thailand, his undercover gigs, his consultation on Italian crime films, and lots more. Essentially he comes off like the Italian equivalent to Randy Jurgensen, and it would be great to see him turn up again in the future. The limited edition packaging also features a booklet with new essays by the mighty Roberto Curti and Barry Forshaw, reversible sleeve packaging featuring new artwork by Colin Murdoch, and twelve double-sided, postcard-sized lobby card reproduction artcards.
THE BIG RACKET: Arrow Video Blu-ray
THE BIG RACKET: Blue Underground DVD
THE HEROIN BUSTERS: Arrow Video Blu-ray
THE HEROIN BUSTERS: Blue Underground DVD
Updated review on March 12, 2022