Saturday, April 18, 2009

Franco Nero Kicks Ass, Redux

Street Law
Blue Underground // 1974 // 103 Minutes // Rated R

Reviewed by Steve Evans

“He’s back blasting death and destruction.” ~ From the promotional poster.

Opening Shot
Director Enzo Castellari worked with star Franco Nero (Die Hard 2) the previous year on High Crime (aka La Polizia Incrimina la Legge Assolve), which may help explain the tagline above for Street Law. Nero plays a different character in this picture.

By any name, Street Law (Il Cittadino si Ribella) is basically Death Wish on a budget, Italian style. Giallo (Italian crime thriller) fans can expect plenty of blazing guns, assorted crazy, violent deaths, and gallons of that unnaturally bright-red, special-effects blood that flowed in 1970s action films. The obligatory fuzz guitar and thumping bass music by Guido De Angelis and Maurizio De Angelis completes the early ’70s experience.

A Bit of Plot…
When engineer Carlo Antonelli (Nero) gets mugged (and miffed after law enforcement just shrugs), he decides to deliver his own justice. A rookie in this world of street violence, Carlo gets the immortal piss beaten out of him a few times before he meets Tony (Giancarlo Prete, Ladyhawke), a young robber who offers to help. Tony’s motives are vague, but he helps score guns and watches Carlo’s back, so they get along.

Together, this odd couple metes out rough justice on nondescript thugs. Nothing has really changed by the time the credits roll — society is still overrun with avarice, corruption, and savage violence — but fans of this genre will feel they got their money’s worth of bloodletting.

Historical Significance (a relative term) and Context
Director Castellari claims on the commentary track that his film was released before Michael Winner’s seminal Death Wish with the late, great, bad-ass Charles Bronson. It’s hard to tell who influenced (or ripped off) whom, as both pictures were released the same year in Italy and the United States, although Castellari’s picture apparently didn’t reach the states until after Death Wish.

Setting aside this chicken vs. egg debate, Castellari’s film plays more like a spaghetti western (especially during the climactic showdown in a factory) than a tale of urban vigilantism. But it is one hyper-kinetic piece of filmmaking when characters aren’t pontificating about what happened, what should happen, and what almost certainly never will.

Action fans will recall Nero played the ruthless General Esperanza in the first Die Hard sequel (left), rescued by mercenaries who took over Dulles International Airport. You can read about another of his early Italian thrillers here.

A solid character actor who often did his own stunts, here Nero comes off like an ordinary Joe Neapolitano caught up in more than he can handle. He runs, pants, sweats, cusses, bleeds and, in one memorable scene, bashes one of his persecutors in the face with a shovel — through the windshield of the bad guy’s car. Nice.

The lovely Barbara Bach (The Black Belly of the Tarantula) appears briefly to flash her dazzling smile and a bit of cleavage. Oh, and she acts concerned.

Nero speaks in his own voice; Bach’s badly dubbed dialogue is pretty funny. I wonder if she and hubby Ringo Starr cue up this film now and then to wax nostalgic when they're not rocking out to Yellow Submarine.

Castellari directs with a confident hand and shows a flair for Peckinpah-style slo-mo action (the opening credit sequence is a hoot), although the gratuitous violence grinds to a halt during the many pretentious speeches. And that’s the main problem with the picture. Characters too often pause to deliver heavy-handed sermons on the social ills of the day. This is initially amusing, but fans of Giallo films may grow restless waiting for the next shootout or car chase. Castellari likes to frame his shots at odd and unexpected angles, which helps hold interest during lulls in the action.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. Blue Underground’s release is uncut and presented in the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The elements used in the digital transfer show a fair amount of wear for a 35-year-old film. Colors are deep and saturated, though there is occasional evidence of edge enhancement and other distracting halo effects. The mono soundtrack is fine. Audio sounded better to these ears when switched to three-channel playback, which directs dialogue to the center speaker.

Extras include the original theatrical trailer and a television spot, plus a commentary track recorded in 2004 with Castellari (in his halting English), and a 17-minute featurette with the director and star Nero, presented in Italian with English subtitles. In this short feature, the men regard each other with mutual respect and fondly recall working together on many profitable low-budget films. Castellari also says this picture was based on actual events and imbues his film with a greater social significance than it probably deserves. Nero comes across as more pragmatic. Both men convey a love of making movies and their enthusiasm on this featurette is as entertaining as the film.

The cult-minded folks at Blue Underground do a consistently solid job of packaging obscure European thrillers and horror films with a nice selection of extras. The prints often leave much to be desired, but where else are we going to find these crazy psychotronic imports at such an attractive price?

Listening to the fuzztone music score reminded me of late-period Yardbirds, featuring guitarist Jimmy Page in his pre-Led Zeppelin days. Now, then: Street Law closely resembles Death Wish (or vice versa, if you prefer), and while considering this I recalled that Page composed the music for Death Wish II, in which Vincent Gardenia reprises his role as an Italian New York cop in pursuit of Big Charlie Bronson who, by the time of this first sequel, had given up his Big Apple digs for a chance to shoot punks in Los Angeles, where he enjoyed open season on thugs. All of this is a roundabout way of finding Street Law guilty of providing influential (and slightly above-average) exploitation entertainment.

And I am guilty of too damn much sub-referencing on trashy Italian thrillers. Ciao, baby. Let’s call it a wrap for today.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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