Blue Underground // 1977 // 93 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Chief Counsel Rob Lineberger (Retired) // May 18th, 2006
Sex, violence, and a kickass score by Goblin all fully restored for the first time ever in America!
The quote from Inzomniac on the front cover of this DVD boldly states that "Castellari knows action better than anybody!" I haven't crossed paths with Castellari until now, but this 93-minute excerpt from his life's work proves Inzomniac right. The Heroin Busters is a full-throttle orgy of drugs, death, and fast vehicles.
Mike Hamilton (David Hemmings, Gangs of New York) heads up an international task force of cops looking to bust a well-connected ring of heroin pushers. His surveillance of Fabio (Fabio Testi, Revolver) is interrupted at the airport by a freak accident of cops and police dogs actually stopping Fabio with the powder. While in jail, Fabio bunks with a crazed hippie in need of a fix and a solid business plan. The two escape and together take on the crime bosses who run the city.
It isn't long before Hamilton is back on Fabio's trail. In the meantime, Fabio has set up a high-profile deal with some trigger-happy foreigners. While his hippie partner (Wolfango Soldati) has vivid lesbian fantasies involving his girlfriend Vera (Sherry Buchanan), Fabio slinks into an abandoned parking deck for a game of dodging lead. Will Fabio take control of the drug scene, or will Hamilton put him behind bars for good?
The Heroin Busters opens with a sparse, dialogue-free montage of cops and heroin runners at work in cities across the globe. Grifters, addicts, mobsters, and cops swirl around each other in a dark dance set against a backdrop of neon and cold pavement. The montage eloquently establishes the scope of the drug problem and the premise of the film. The "kickass score by Goblin" doesn't waste any time asserting itself -- disco-urbane riffs take center stage and capably drive the film's introduction.
The lack of words or context gives the intro tension and sets a taut pace. And with the exception of a lull or two, the pace keeps moving. Castellari thrusts us into the middle of a complicated -- or at least moderately twisty -- nest of cop/druggie/narc/mobster interactions. The cohort characters played by David Hemmings and Fabio Testi anchor the film. Mike Hamilton is vitriolic, bitter, and driven. He is always on the go, moving to cut off the ring of crime. Meanwhile, Fabio is enigmatic and laid back. He moves in on the crime bosses to take over their territories, but does so with such sardonic calm that you never know what to make of his motives. I've seen Fabio Testi in other Italian thrillers such as Revolver and Contraband, but he's never seemed as assured as he is in this film.
Although the plot isn't overly complex, it swirls around enough to keep our attention. Castellari strikes a balance between complexity and straightforwardness that will put a smile on the face of action fans. At no point do the clichés derail our interest in the action, nor does the action become so fantastic that it overpowers the gritty realism. An early climax occurs when Fabio and a couple of mobsters dress up like cops to raid the Evidence bunker for drugs. It goes south, and the police station becomes a shooting gallery. Castellari provides enough character motivations and conflicting loyalties to add layers of depth to the scene. It feels like something Tarantino might have riffed on in Reservoir Dogs.
Eventually, The Heroin Busters lays all of its cards on the table and makes a flat out run for the finish line. At this point the pace morphs into an escalating series of obstacles for Fabio to overcome. He has to escape capture, then shoot his way out of a building, and even navigate through highly public areas without getting noticed. The action becomes slightly more cartoonish here, and Fabio passes up obvious opportunities to off bad guys. For example, he walks into a subway tunnel and smashes the lightbulbs. When a gangster follows him into the tunnel, Fabio merely has to crouch and wait for his backlit target to show up. Instead, a protracted chase ensues. Later, he again runs from isolated pursuers when he could better hide and shoot. Nonetheless, the scenes take on a lyrical quality, like stanzas of pursuit and choruses of gunplay.
For once, the English dub of one of Blue Underground's DVDs seems organic. This might actually be an honest-to-goodness English version of the film. It removes the kung-fu feeling that goes along with other Blue U releases. Though the colors have become slightly muted with age, the transfer is sparkly and clear, with good contrast. There is some color instability, but it doesn't detract from another fine Blue Underground transfer.
Blue Underground has also thrown in a feature-length interview from 2004 by David Gregory with the director and his son Andrea Geronimi. Unlike some "young guy interviews older director" tracks, this one finds a decent rapport. Castellari vividly remembers shooting The Heroin Busters and lucidly discusses the production. He has a steady stream of interesting anecdotes about the actors and shooting. (Particularly the intravenous shooting!) For example, one of his actors was the camera assistant to Federico Fellini, which proved useful in certain scenes when he needed a stand in for the DP.
The picture ends with a motorcycle chase and aerial finale. By this point, I'd soured somewhat on Castellari's vibe. The dueling airplanes scene is particularly lame, because it basically shows extended footage of two planes flying near each other. If Fabio had done something clever to send the other plane to its fiery death, that would be something. But two planes flying around until one plane inexplicably crashes into the ground is not what I call a satisfying cap to a great action movie.
Let's see, what does this blurb on the back say...oh yes, "the case takes a deadly detour into sexual depravity and sudden violence." Blue Underground is more conscientious than most studios about providing honest marketing copy. Technically, I guess you could call one brief fantasy of lesbian writhings and a brief "motorcycle passenger uses breasts for a handle" gag a detour into sexual depravity. That said, if you're looking for more sexual depravity and less sudden violence, dig out another Blue U title like Eugenie or Vampyres.
Some people might find the heavy drug activity off-putting. There are people licking toilets to get that one last scrap of heroin, strung-out girls, weird guru hippies, and other staples of the drug scene liberally sprinkled throughout the film. But hey, The Heroin Busters is a '70s drug flick, so there you go.
Fabio and his fringed leather boots walk all over this tense crime thriller. From the opening strains of a score that earns the "kickass" label, through twists and shootings and death, and even soaring into the air, he doesn't stop for a moment. Neither does Castellari; his movie is a satisfying dose of tension and carnage that should slake the thirst of the most discriminating action fan. The '70s flair and drug culture provide an amusing sideshow, too.
The Heroin Busters makes bail. Let 'em back on the streets.
Review content copyright © 2006 Rob Lineberger; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Blue Underground
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Release Year: 1977
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Audio Commentary with Director Enzo G. Castellari
* Theatrical Trailer