Blue Underground // 1976 // 106 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Paul Corupe (Retired) // May 4th, 2006
Il Grande Racket
One of three Italian-lensed cop thrillers by director Enzo G. Castellari hitting DVD this month from cult experts Blue Underground, The Big Racket is the delicious main course that polizieschi fans have been waiting for: a steaming plate of spaghetti-flavored revenge.
1970s Italian leading man Fabio Testi (Revolver) stars in The Big Racket as Inspector Nico Palmieri. This tough cop discovers that the small businesses in his hometown are being strong-armed by protection racketeers; violent brutes who charge shop owners $200 for the dubious service of not smashing up their shops. After walking in on one such episode, Palmieri hauls the gang down to the station and tries to beat a confession out of them. But he's forced to let them go because the townsfolk are just too frightened to testify. Eventually, a restauranteur (Renzo Palmer, How to Kill a Judge) agrees to give evidence. When the thugs find out, they retaliate by viciously raping his teenage daughter. Similar misfortune falls on others who offer their help to the indomitable Inspector, including his friend, a gentleman thief named Pepe (Vincent Gardenia, Bang the Drum Slowly). But as Palmieri gets close to uncovering the international organization backing the local racketeers, he's inexplicably fired by his bought-off superiors and forced to take matters into his own hands. He recruits a small army of those who have been wronged by the gang and leads a gun-blazing raid on an executive mobster meeting.
Italian police thrillers (known as "polizieschi" in their native country) may have been strongly informed by American action/crime films like Dirty Harry and Death Wish, but they are more than just simple Euro-knockoffs of the latest genre craze. Like the strong, protagonist-led Hollywood revenge fantasies that dominated theatres in the 1970s, The Big Racket and its ilk were typically about individuals forced to work outside the law to stop dangerous criminals -- but with a distinct Euro-twist. In the late 1960s and early '70s, Italy had become a hotbed of social unrest, as political parties were accused of misusing public funds, deep corruption was exposed in the police force, and the country was plagued by increasingly bold acts of terrorism perpetrated by organized crime factions. Inspector Harry Callahan was a hardboiled cop restrained by what he saw as a system designed to protect criminals rather than victims. On the other side of the world, the embittered polizieschi protagonists were paragons of individual empowerment: cops and vigilantes who are forced to go it alone to free their neighbors from the grip of dishonest politicians, crooked cops, and violent thugs.
Though dozens of polizieschi thrillers hit European screens throughout the 1970s, Enzo G. Castellari was undoubtedly one of the more talented directors working in the genre. He virtually gave birth to polizieschi with the Franco Nero vehicle High Crime, followed by several cynical, yet explosive, films that continued to tap into his disillusioned audiences' fears and desires. From The Big Racket's fascinating credits sequence -- a crew of organized crime heavies absolutely decimating a clothing shop with baseball bats -- it's clear that this is also one of the maestro's best genre exercises, a pulp revenge story that makes its point with vivid flashes of violence.
Stylistically, The Big Racket easily ranks among polizieschi's best, with some truly mesmerizing action sequences. An early scene of the thugs pushing Palmieri and his car over a cliff is actually shot from the inside of the vehicle, with Testi behind the wheel dodging broken glass and loose car parts as he spirals down to the bottom of a canyon. It's an absolutely exhilarating set piece, but it's just a taste of things to come. We're soon treated to a thrilling chase that sends has one of the gang's rivals flying over the top of a car, followed by a trainyard shootout that leaves literally dozens of patrolmen and criminal gunmen dead. It's the film's final showdown, however, that is most impressive: an ultra-violent gun battle that takes up the entire final reel, as Palmieri and his vigilante crew launch their carefully planned, full scale assault on the heavily armed thugs. With more firearm blasts, squibs, and causalities than any hardboiled action fans could ever hope for, this is easily one of the longest and bloodiest massacres ever in a polizieschi. It is an undeniable technical achievement and reason enough to check out this wild flick.
The only complaint I have about The Big Racket is that it's slightly overlong, and has trouble rectifying the lighter tone of its subplot with the overall brutality that surrounds it. Aging criminal and pickpocket Pepe (as played by the scene-stealing Vincent Gardenia) is enlisted in the cause to rob certain businesses under Palmieri's watchful eye, in the hopes that his illegal activities will gain him an audience with the racketeers. Castellari obviously included the picaresque thief as a non-violent foil for the hard-as-nails gangsters. But Pepe just doesn't seem to inhabit the same world as the rest of the characters in the film, bringing only broad comic relief that overrides the intended pathos when the gang later decides that the petty hood is no longer of use to them.
Uncut and uncensored for the first time in North America, The Big Racket is presented with the care that we've come to expect from the Blue U. The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer looks just great, with no grain to speak of to detract from the solid, bright colors, excellent shadow details, and overall clarity. Likewise, the English mono dub is more than adequate, presenting both sound and dialogue clearly. The Big Racket is accompanied by a subtitled Italian trailer for the film (containing a few alternate shots not seen in the film), and a commentary with Castellari and his son moderated by David Gregory. The director's English is fine, if occasionally fractured; this is a good listen that packs some fascinating details about this film and Castellari's long and esteemed career in genre cinema.
Polizieschi films are highly underrepresented on DVD in R1, with only a handful of titles currently available. Most of them are middling exercises at best. The Big Racket and Blue Underground's other new Castellari titles are easily the first essential releases for fans of the genre: rollicking, gritty action films that truly represent the Italian cop thriller at its very best.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Blue Underground
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Year: 1976
MPAA Rating: Not Rated