The Heroin Busters Review
Drug use in the city of Rome is at an all-time high. Children score from dealers in front of their schools, mules waltz straight through airport security, and Interpol's main man, Mike Hamilton (David Hemmings), is at his wits' end. Fed up to the back teeth with the local police force's incompetence, his only hope is to rely on one of his own men, Fabio (Fabio Testi), an officer so deep undercover that no-one but Hamilton knows who he really is. Even as Fabio gains the trust of cartel leader Gianni (John Loffredo), however, the dealers are edging ever closer to the truth, and when his cover is blown, the hunter becomes the hunted as Fabio finds himself alone in a desperate fight to survive.
Released in 1977, The Heroin Busters (La Via della Droga in Italian) was director Enzo G. Castellari's final foray into poliziotteschi territory during the 1970s. (He later returned to the genre in 1980 with Day of the Cobra.) Like its immediate predecessor, The Big Racket, it is yet another ruthless, pessimistic exposé into the seedy underbelly of Italian organised crime, although this time the mood is lightened somewhat by some well-placed black humour. The script, co-written by Castellari, Massimo De Rita (Street Law) and producer Galliano Juso, suffers from an uneven pace and a number of undeveloped loose ends, but it makes up for its shortcomings with a nailbiting final half-hour, which sees Fabio on the run from the entire Rome crime syndicate and climaxes in an enjoyably absurd duel in the skies between two aeroplanes.
David Hemmings, who in his autobiography made some rather disparaging comments about the Italian productions in which he appeared in the 1970s (including Dario Argento's Profondo Rosso), is quite clearly having blast here, overacting in the most wonderfully theatrical manner and even getting in on the action, thumping various unlucky drug dealers with great gusto. He also gets all the best lines: you haven't lived until you've heard him bellowing "For clogging up a fucking toilet!" in response to a criminal demanding to know why he has been arrested. He also has genuine chemistry with Fabio Testi, with the pair of them effectively conveying a sense that they are old friends who have seen it all in the line of duty. Testi, meanwhile, does an excellent job as the gristled, laidback undercover cop, with whatever criticisms I levelled against his performance in The Big Racket being rendered moot here. No, he doesn't manage to out-Nero Franco Nero, whose performance in Street Law is one of the highlights of the entire Italian crime filone, but he holds his own and seems to be game for anything.
Whenever the camera is on Hemmings or Testi, the film is assured and engaging, with their performances compensating for the somewhat generic nature of the script and the fact that, ultimately, we know next to nothing about the two characters and what motivates them. When they aren't in the picture, however, the results are less impressive. The opening montage, which takes us from Amsterdam to New York to Hong Kong to Rome, does an ample job of showing off the scenery while highlighting the extent of the drug cartel's influence, but ultimately has little bearing on the plot, while a subplot involving a desperate drug addict (Wolfango Soldati) and his prostitute girlfriend (the sultry but inxplicably top-billed Sherry Buchanan of Zombie Holocaust and What Have They Done to Your Daughters? fame) seems to be nothing more than an attempt to pad the film out and provide some admittedly not undesired T&A. Once again, the male-dominated nature of the genre is readily evident, and is strikes me as a shame that Buchanan's role was not further beefed up to act as a counterpoint to the plethora of testosterone on display.
That's not to say that the film suffers from its emphasis on action, though. Indeed, as I mentioned earlier, the final 30 minutes are absolutely superb and are easily the highlight of all Castellari's poliziotteschi films. The pace is brutal, and there is a level of unpredictability to the events which means that a great deal of the enjoyment stems from waiting to see just what crazy stunt Fabio will pull off next in his attempts to dispatch his many pursuers. Highlights include a tense shoot-out atop a partially constructed building, a breakneck speed motorcycle chase around an ancient monument, and of course the aforementioned air battle. Meanwhile, the score provided by Goblin, hot on the heels of their outstanding work on Argento's Suspiria, is memorable and addictive, and makes for an interesting contrast to Castellari's earlier work with the De Angelis brothers.
At 93 minutes, The Heroin Busters is a good 10 to 15 minutes shorter than Castellari's other crime films, and the result is that its pace is maintained much more effectively, even if the plot does feature some rather unneccessary diversions that don't really go anywhere. In terms of the three Castellari films released by Blue Underground on DVD, this one falls somewhere in the middle, lacking the sheer intensity of Franco Nero's performance in Street Law but being considerably tighter and more engaging than The Big Racket. This may have been the director's final crime film of the decade, but he certainly goes out in style.
It's business as usual for the audio-visual presentation, with Blue Underground offering an anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer that suffers from the haloing, lack of detail and frozen grain patterns that plague their releases. The audio, meanwhile, is once again restricted to English mono, but the good news is that the dub is fairly good, with David Hemmings naturally providing his own voice, while the Italian cast are dubbed with a reasonable level of care. Once again, there are no subtitles.
Like The Big Racket, the film is accompanied by the original theatrical trailer, as well as an audio commentary featuring Castellari, his son Andrea Girolami, and Blue Underground producer David Gregory. It's a lively, informative track with fewer dead spots than its predecessor, and a focus on the stunts and locations. Castellari also takes the time to praise his cast, especially David Hemmings, whom he reveals was very eager to do his own stunts. All in all, a nice collection of extras, although some sort of featurette, like the one provided for Street Law, would be nice. In particular, it's dissapointing not to hear from Fabio Testi.
An enjoyable and well-executed crime thriller, The Heroin Busters gets a reasonable release from Blue Underground, although once again the mediocre transfer and the lack of an Italian audio track are a source of irritation.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 05:23:49