Blue Underground // 1980 // 97 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Paul Corupe (Retired) // August 26th, 2004
It's tough to know exactly what to make of Contraband, a gangster film directed by esteemed Euro-horror kingpin Lucio Fulci. Made between Zombie and City of the Living Dead, two of the his most popular fright flicks, Contraband is a seeming tribute to American Mafia films like The Godfather as well as the violent crime thrillers known as "poliziotteschi" that proliferated in Italian cinemas in the 1970s. Depending on your mood, this could be considered either an extra-gory mob movie, or a horror film about a ring of cigarette smugglers terrorized by a group of killers. Either way, it falls somewhat short of its intended mark.
Smuggler Luca Di Angelo (Fabio Testi, Revolver) is blamed when a routine boat delivery of black market cigarettes goes wrong. Turns out that the coast wasn't clear, and the gangsters are forced to dispose of their cargo before the flatfoots pinch the whole operation. Soon after, Luca's brother is murdered, and he is forced to determine if there is a traitor in his midst dealing out retribution for his carelessness, or if it was a hit contracted by The Marsegliese (Marcel Bozuffi, The French Connection), a French drug Don looking to take over the supply routes already established by Luca's gang. As Luca comes under mounting pressure to succumb to the rival cartel, his wife Adele (Ivana Monti, The Five Days of Milan) is kidnapped and his Mafioso compatriots start showing up dead. To avoid joining them, Luca must quickly formulate a plan.
While beloved by gore fans for his overstated special effects, almost every time Lucio Fulci stepped outside of the horror genre, he made a bigger mess than a decaying zombie on a fresh carpet. From the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, his efforts to diversify produced some of the most stubborn stains on his résumé yet. Look no further than the misguided sword and sandal debacle Conquest, the laughable sci-fi effort Fighting Centurions, or his spaghetti western misfire Four of the Apocalypse for proof that Fulci may have been a master of horror, but little else. While nowhere near as bad as some of his work, Contraband still proves a problem for the veteran director, as he has a little trouble sneaking "excitement" past Customs.
Contraband was obviously intended to be a straight crime thriller, but it rarely works as such. The film immediately gets off on a bad foot, with a completely lifeless speedboat pursuit that has Luca and his fellow cigarette smuggling cronies escaping from the harbor police. Chase scenes are a staple of the poliziotteschi genre, but Fulci completely botches his opening with lackluster directing and editing. Lingering scenes of boats zipping away and bird's-eye-view helicopter shots might be visually interesting, but they aren't in the least bit suspenseful. Clearly still operating in horror mode, Fulci seems to be saving his quick cuts and explosive shocks for the gore scenes; it's as though he doesn't trust his action sequences to excite an audience the way a squished eyeball might.
Horror fans know there's but one thing to look forward to when they pick up a Lucio Fulci DVD, and that's outrageous screen deaths. Although gorehounds must patiently wait through a good deal of plot exposition before the skull fragments really start flying, I have little doubt that the brain blow-outs, burn victims, and shotgun blasts to the throat make this the goriest gangster film ever made. Now, while Fulci makes excellent use of these kinds of effects in his beloved horror films, they seem needlessly gratuitous and far-fetched in such a comparatively realistic flick. I'm all for a healthy dose of blood-splattered fun, but I was too frequently drawn out of the story by the distracting and extreme nature of the death scenes. One particularly nasty moment has The Marsegliese introducing a blowtorch to the cheek of a pretty young drug mule. As he progressively burns through several layers of skin, it's hard to bring yourself back to something as trivial as the moral implications of Luca's "say no to drugs" problem.
The cast is mediocre at best, playing mostly interchangeable gangsters whose only purpose in the film is to die a grisly death, like teenage machete bait in a slasher film. The sole standout is Testi, who puts in a charismatic performance as Luca Di Angelo. Maintaining a detached aloofness, he still manages to make his character quite sympathetic. A typically sordid scene in which Luca's wife is raped and tortured over the phone as a message to the conflicted gangster is both brutal and unforgettable, but in this case, these qualities are attributable the humanity that Testi instills in his character, and not to Fulci's sadistically lingering camerawork.
Now, don't get me wrong -- this is one of Fulci's best non-horror efforts, and his fans are definitely going to want to check this out. It never gets boring and certainly delivers on the gore front, two things that can certainly not be said about some of his other misfires like Four of the Apocalypse. The overall structure of the film is fairly kinetic, which more or less makes up for the lack of tension in the individual scenes. Also helping Contraband is an exciting twist ending that tones down the violence to slightly more believable levels.
Circulating in a cut version for many years, Contraband has finally been restored to its full bloody glory with a decent transfer from Blue Underground. Discounting one or two moments of severe and distracting print damage and some persistent grain, the film looks quite good. The image is fairly sharp, with solid blacks and nicely rendered colors that emphasize Fulci's muted palette. The Dolby mono soundtrack is less impressive, revealing its age and the limitations of its origin. The track itself is clean, but don't expect much fidelity -- effects are thin, and the trivial disco score is robbed of all impact. The quality of the voice acting in the English dub itself is tolerable, although an original Italian track would really have made things more interesting. Sadly, the extras amount to little more than an overlong trailer and two text biographies for Testi and Fulci.
Although Contraband simply cannot not hold a candle to Blue Underground's other enjoyable Italian crime thrillers, Revolver and the Rififi update Grand Slam, it is still worth a look for Lucio Fulci fans, representing arguably his best work outside the horror genre.
This film is guilty of being a lesser release in the Fulci canon. Tonight, Contraband sleeps with the fishes.
Review content copyright © 2004 Paul Corupe; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Blue Underground
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Release Year: 1980
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Theatrical Trailer
* Talent Bios