Director: Enzo G. Castellari
Notable Cast: Fabio Testi, Vincent Gardenia, Orso Maria Guerrini, Glauco Onorato, Marcella Michelangeli, Romano Puppo, Antonio Marsina, Salvatore Borgese, Joshua Sinclair
Within the confines of Italian genre cinema, particularly the boom of exploitative work from the late 60s through the 1980s, there are a handful of directors that repeatedly pop up as some of the cornerstones. Enzo G. Castellari is one of those. Although I have yet to fully explore his works with full gusto, the films that I have seen can range so wildly in quality that it makes him one of the more fascinating artists to explore.
When Arrow Video decided to drop a double-feature box set of two of his works from the poliziotteschi genre (or fringing on it), it was high time to explore some new Castellari films. Entitled Rogue Cops and Racketeers: Two Crime Thrillers The Big Racket & The Heroin Busters from Enzo G. Castellari, in all of its long winded glory, the set features those two films and a slew of new special features for fans and collectors to enjoy.
The first film featured in the set, The Big Racket, could be considered a big surprise. To me, at least. Although the film regularly hits many of the tropes of the crime films of the era and industry, it’s a remarkably intense flick and plays its story and characters like a much larger crime epic. It’s a meticulously pieced together slice of crime cinema loaded with a slew of fun side characters, a handful of intense crime and action sequences, and a finale that features a body count Rambo would be impressed with. The Big Racket not only rests as one of the best Castellari films, but perhaps one of the most entertaining Italian crime films of the period.
The premise starts off small. A protection racket for small businesses in Italy starts to get more and more violent which leads a rogue inspector, played by Fabio Testi, onto the trail of a monstrous gang. However, the more he digs and attempts to help the victims of their crimes, the more he uncovers and the protection racket just keeps getting bigger and bigger.
It’s a classic ‘cop stumbles onto a conspiracy’ angle for a cops n’ criminals’ film and, quite frankly, the first act struggles to place its identity in a clear manner. It’s intentional though as the audience is meant to be partnered with Testi’s Inspector Palmieri as he pushes to put all the pieces into place. Although the film features a ton of charismatic and despicable performances (on both sides of the law) which lead to some impressive moments - including a car wreck that places a camera and Testi inside of a rolling vehicle that would be illegal in most countries for safety concerns - the film feels scattered.
Most of the first two acts of The Big Racket are vignettes of Palmieri trying to stay two steps ahead of the vicious gang as they go about various criminal activities. Gun fights ensue, small time con men are recruited, and innocent bystanders are victimized throughout. Each sequence plays out like an episode of a strangely violent and shocking series and, while well executed, seemingly feel disjointed. There are some incredible moments in here, one resulting in a harrowing and emotional death sequence during a riot outside of a bank, but as a whole it feels a tad underwhelming.
That is until, in an impressive maneuver, the third act kicks down the proverbial door and reveals what Castellari and his co-writers are aiming to create. This film isn’t a cops n’ criminals chase flick. It’s a team-up film revenge flick in disguise, fueled on 1970s anti-red-tape, anti-police force shenanigans that was so popularized in this era with its rogue cops and vigilante stories. Suddenly, all the side stories converge into one plot - where a group of fed-up civilians, ex-killers, and criminals are led by Palmieri to siege down onto the organized crime syndicate that took everything from them. Needless to say, particularly for an Italian film of this ilk, the third act rollicks its way into a full-on war scene where no character is safe and every car must erupt into a ball of flames.
The Big Racket, for all its stuttered choices in the first two acts, becomes an impressive poliziotteschi film filled with bold characters, shocking moments of intensive violence (and a few sequences that go pitch black dark with hard to stomach assaults that will leave every viewer unsettled), and enough action to appease bullet junkies. It’s not necessarily an easy film to watch, despite being anchored by another charming performance from Testi, but the payoff is so spectacular that it’s worth the watch.